Railroad silver, which is comprised of hollowware such as pitchers and teapots, as well as flatware like knives and forks, is unique because it attracts sterling silver collectors and railroadiana buffs alike.
Had you told early patrons of the railroads in, say, 1830, that one day there would be white linen tablecloths set with silver and china in railroad dining cars, they likely would have thought you were crazy. At that point, trains not only lacked silver, but there wasn’t even food service—dining cars would not come around for another three decades. Instead patrons rode the rails on uncomfortable wooden benches, without sleeping or eating arrangements of any sort.
In the 1840s and 1850s, once the novelty of rail transportation wore off, there was a push by consumers to improve the riding experience. George Pullman, a Chicago contractor, wa...
Ten years later, passengers no longer had to scarf down meals on train stops or bring their own food aboard as the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad unveiled dining cars.
These early dining cars were by no means luxurious, but after the Civil War the quality of the train-dining experience improved exponentially. In 1868, Pullman rolled out Delmonico’s. Named after the famous New York eatery, it was the first fancy restaurant on a train—the Golden Age of train travel had begun.
Dining cars were advertised to would-be passengers as being fancier than New York City hotels. Travelers were often invited to choose among five-course meals with dozens of options. Interestingly, the dining cars consistently operated at a loss because of their extravagance, but they were seen as necessary part of turning train travel into a “Grand Tour” experience.
Not surprisingly, the silverware used in these dining rooms was only the finest. Many train companies commissioned some of the top silver manufacturers to produce their flatware, including International Silver Company, Meriden Britannia, Smith Silversmiths, Gorham Manufacturing, and Reed and Barton. These silver collections were mostly made of 18 percent nickel-silver. Some railroads had their own lines of flatware and hollowware, though more often than not they just ordered what the manufacturers produced for fancy hotels and stamped their logos on them.
Today collectors look for cocktail shakers and coffeepots with Union Pacific logos, platters and cutlery with the Great Northern Railway’s monogram, and food warmers with Southern Pacific insignias. These stamps and impressions, which served as advertisements for the rail companies at the time, make railroad silver easily identifiable for collectors today.
Railroad silver can also be identified by its weight. These pieces were designed to look nice, but they also had to be durable, so railroad silver was often very heavy. For example, much of the hollowware made for railroads had handles that were silver-soldered to the main portion of the piece.
Collectors of railroad silver sometimes try to accumulate entire sets, which can be difficult because rare pieces such as cheese scoops, menu holders, and sugar tongs weren’t manufactured in the same quantities as knives, forks, and spoons.
Additionally, the more intricate the details on a piece of railroad flatware and hollowware, the more collectible it becomes. For example, those with curving handles or unique designs such as a fleur-de-lys are more desirable than pieces with more basic designs. And time is a last factor—while the era of collectible railroad silver dates from the 1880s all the way through the middle of the 20th century, the early pieces tend to be more prized.
Interviews & Articles
My interest in silver started when I was a child. One of my earliest memories was opening either my mother or father’s jewelry box… [more]
Many people are fascinated by railroads. At one time, railroads were connected to most aspects of community and economic life, and… [more]
My husband Bill always loved trains and my grandfather had been an executive with the Denver and Rio Grande here. We opened up a l… [more]
How did I get started collecting Arts and Crafts silver? My wife and I had been collecting Arts and Crafts items as far back as I … [more]
Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)
Silver Marks Encyclopedia
Silver at the Victoria and Albert
The Gilbert Collection
Delight in Design: Indian Silver for the Raj
Clubs & Associations: Railroadiana
- Key, Lock and Lantern, Inc.
- Railroadiana Collectors Association, Inc.
- National Association of Timetable Collectors
- National Railway Historical Society
- Society of American Silversmiths