Railroad China Inventories

At some time or another, every collector of railroad china has wondered how much of this stuff existed in the first place? With rampant "sticker shock" at today's railroadiana shows, collectors may reasonably assume that much railroad china either did not survive the years or did not exist in quantities to begin with. In the case of small railroads, the latter is obviously true, since a passenger service consisting of a few dining cars would not warrant a large amount of china and other dining car items. However, the surviving records of large railroads reveals a staggering amount of inventory, and it's interesting (painful?) to learn just how much china originally existed. Here are three examples:

  • Some years ago, Key, Lock & Lantern published a "Train Talk" brochure from the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) dating to 1937. This particular issue described the enormous amount of material needed to sustain PRR's wide-ranging dining car service. At that time PRR operated 194 dining cars, of which 150 were in regular service and the remainder in reserve. The latter were probably more or less fully stocked with kitchen and table items (china, silver, etc.) so as to be ready for service on short notice. According to the brochure, "...the regular equipment of a dining car includes 1,945 articles of table and kitchen ware". The brochure further reports that on a typical dining car, "...1,000 dishes are washed and dried during an ordinary meal period -- beside glass, silverware and kitchen utensils." Doing the math, 377,330 table and kitchen items were stocked on PRR dining cars during this period. We don't know if the information about a "1000 dishes" washed means that that many dishes were carried because obviously some dishes could have been washed and used more than once during a particular meal service. Still, if just a fourth of the table and kitchen inventory was china, that would still be 94,332 pieces onboard the fleet! And this number does not include china held in PRR warehouses in reserve. The fragile nature of china required extensive reserves just to replace breakage.
  • In his excellent book on Southern Pacific (SP) dining car service, "Dinner is Served: Fine Dining Aboard the Southern Pacific," Jim Loveland quotes a 1916 inventory reporting that SP used 105 diners, 63 buffet cars, four cafe cars, and one lunch car at that time. These cars used, in total, "...19,425 pieces of glassware and 71,820 pieces of chinaware." Again, it is probable that these figures referred to onboard inventory and that many more items existed in warehouse facilities as reserves. By the early 1940's, SP operated 72 dining cars in addition to 10 hotels, and 7 steamer restaurants. However, Loveland gives no china inventory figures for this period.
  • In his "bible" of railroad china, Doug McIntyre quotes some fascinating correspondence from the mid-1930's among Baltimore & Ohio Railroad officials regarding different patterns of china. It seems that extra large platters were not needed by the Dining Car department, and the B&O was trying to figure out what to do with them. A memo from 1934 listed "541 Black and Gold large platters (now called the "Capitol" pattern by collectors) which cost $3.92 each and 360 "Colonial" large platters (now called the "Centenary" pattern by collectors) which cost the B&O $2.30 each. The memo goes on to say, "Undoubtedly, these platters will never be used unless our service should change materially; but it seems to me we should realize something from them...If they could be used up for door prizes and sold to somebody for $2.00 each, this would give us a loss that would have to be written off....".

These are just a few examples of historical sources showing how much china inventory existed on railroads at a given time. The numbers are staggering, which leads to the question, "Where did all this stuff go?!!" Obviously much was lost to breakage over the years. Also, there is ample evidence that as railroads phased out their dining car service their china inventories were sold to institutions, camps, and other organizations. Imagine a table full of your favorite, rare china pattern at a boy scout camp! In some cases, china inventories were simply destroyed, particularly when a railroad was acquired by another, and the succeeding company wanted to eradicate all traces of the former's corporate identity. Of course, some china pieces were squirreled away by employees and passengers, and these eventually emerge into the light of day through estate sales and flea markets.

Undoubtedly there are many more existing records of railroad china inventories. We welcome additional information on this topic, which can be appended here. See Contact Us page.

New Additions

Since posting this page, a couple additions have been sent in:

  • According to a mid-1960's letter from the Erie Lackawanna (EL) dining car department: "On a typical run from Hoboken to Chicago an EL diner would be stocked with 400 pieces of china, 475 pieces of silver, 250 pieces of glassware, 600 napkins, 120 tables cloths plus enough waiters' uniforms, cooks' coats, hats and aprons to supply each man with two a day". Tim Stuy of the Erie Lackawanna Dining Car Preservation Society adds: At this time the EL was down to two trains that had dining car service, the "Phoebe Snow" and the "Lake Cities." I believe it took five cars to cover these runs. The EL never purchased any china. They used the unmarked pieces of the "Phoebe Snow" pattern and the top marked Erie "Starrucca" pattern. They did, however order a version of International Silver's "Grecian" pattern marked with the EL diamond. (Thanks to Tim Stuy for the above information.)
  • According to a 3/18/63 inventory, the following "Blue Colonial" (AKA "Centenary") china was stocked on each Baltimore & Ohio Railroad diner numbered 1092 to 95:
96 Individual Bakers
20 Casserole Dishes
20 Casserole Covers
12 Celery Troughs
12 Comports
75 Bouillon Cups
84 Coffee Cups
24 Egg Cups
45 Oatmeal Bowls
15 12-oz. Pitchers
24 Round Pie Dishes
30 Individual Berry Pie Dishes
12 A-la-carte Berry Pie Dishes
120 Bread & Butter Plates
72 Dinner Plates
18 Soup Plates
96 Tea Plates
12 Medium Platters
60 Small Platters
6 Chocolate Pots
36 Tea Pots
96 Coffee Saucers
24 Gravy Boats
96 Sauce Dishes
9 Shirred Egg Dishes

Thanks to Tom Greco for supplying the above information. More inventory information on B&O dining cars will be posted on a separate page in the near future.


McIntyre, Douglas W.  The Official Guide to Dining Car China.  1990.  Golden Spike Enterprises. See book list.

Pennsylvania Railroad. Mile-A-Minute Meals: Behind the Scenes in the Dining Care Service of a Great Railroad. From the 1934-1946 series of Pennsylvania Railroad promotional brochures entitled "Train Talks." As reprinted in Key, Lock & Lantern, 28, 4, Summer, 1997.

Loveland, Jim A. Dinner is Served: Fine Dining Aboard the Southern Pacific. 1996. Golden West Books.