When passenger service was operated by private railroad companies, first class meal service was considered a major competitive factor to lure customers from competing lines. Considering that a railroad dining car was a restaurant on wheels, a lot of items were needed to provide such service -- linens, silver, flatware, glassware, china, menus, and more. All of these are of interest to railroadiana collectors, but none generates more excitement than china. Among the reasons for this are the inherent elegance of china, the beauty of the designs and patterns that were used, and the sheer variety of different pieces that were produced.

Railroad china was commercial-grade ware. It had to be sturdy enough to withstand intense daily use, which meant repeated washing, stacking, temperature extremes, and enthusiastic use of utensils. Above all, it had to stay in place on the table of a rocking dining car. Railroads continually experimented with different types and styles of china, even different shapes, in an effort to achieve the right balance of durability and elegance.

What china collectors focus on most is the pattern, meaning the design that was applied to each piece of china. Generally collectors tends to specialize in particular patterns, either because they like the particular railroad associated with that pattern or because they simply like the color and design of the pattern itself. There are basically three types of patterns found in railroad china: (1) a pattern that was developed for and exclusively used by one railroad, (2) a stock pattern that was adopted and modified in some way by a railroad, and (3) a stock pattern than was used by a railroad as is without any special marking or modification.

Examples of the the first type are the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's "Centenary" pattern (example shown at right) and the Santa Fe's "Mimbreno" pattern. Both of these are arguably two of the most popular patterns among railroadiana china collectors. "Centenary" in particular was produced in many shapes (cups, saucers, pitchers, etc.) by several manufacturers over many decades, so there is an extraordinary amount of variation in this pattern. The B&O took great pride in this pattern and even produced an informational booklet on it. There are numerous other proprietary railroad china patterns, among them Milwaukee Road's "Traveler", Great Northern's "Glory of the West", and Union Pacific's "Streamliner".

A major example of the second pattern type -- stock patterns that were modified for railroad use -- is the Pullman Company's "Indian Tree" pattern. Here the modification largely consisted of incoroprating the Pullman name (see example at right) into the existing design. In fact, the New, York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad also used this same basic pattern, except the railroad name is not on the surface but rather on the back (backstamped), and the colors are slightly different. The use of stock patterns in this manner presents a problem for collectors because pieces that are not railroad-marked may be represented as railroad china nonetheless . More than one novice collector has invested in such pieces only to learn later that their railroad use is suspect. General advice from the china gurus: Buy only marked pieces.

Above. SP&S coach-cafe with "American" pattern china on the tables - circa 1939. (Photo courtesy of Oregon Historical Society; click on photo for larger image). Below. A plate in the "American" pattern. (Photo courtesy of Meg and Tom Coughlin.

Finally, an example of a pattern that was simply used by a railroad without special modification was the "American" pattern used by the Spokane, Portland & Seattle (SP&S) Railway (See images at right). There are a number of reasons why a railroad would choose to use an off-the-shelf stock pattern, including lower cost and ready availability of replacements. In the case of the SP&S, there is the unconfirmed suspicion among SP&S buffs that since this railroad was owned by two larger railroads (the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific), the parent roads did not want the SP&S to have the level of unique identity that a customized china pattern would imply. At any rate, china collectors who collect this type of pattern have to live with the fact that there is no way to know whether a given piece ever saw actual railroad service.

This brief discussion of patterns barely scratches the surface of only one aspect of railroad china collecting, and here we offer some advice: More than any major category of railroadiana artifacts, china collecting requires knowledge and savvy to make smart buys and avoid mistakes. Fortunately the hobby has many china enthusuiasts who are generous with their advice and expertise. Railroadiana shows offer ways to find them. In addition, there are two fine publications devoted to this topic: Doug McIntyre's "The Official Guide to Railroad Dining Car China" and Dick Luckin's "Dining on Rails". Want to see more china on the web? Meg and Tom Coughlin's Rail Store has a regularly updated array of china on display. While the china is for sale, this is not a commercial endorsement -- the china photos are beautifully done and illustrate the color and variety of this type of collectible.