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Riding the Rails to Collectibility
by Bob Brooke

 

The railroads were the dominant form of transportation in the United States up through World War II. Most railroads were large companies that required huge amounts of equipment and material to operate. Today, collectors of railroadiana actively seek the objects that made them run.



Railroadiana collectors often focus on items from a specific region or railroad, such as the New York Central, Southern Pacific, Baltimore and Ohio, Pennsylvania Central, Santa Fe, Norfolk and Western, and Denver and Rio Grande, or on a specific type of item, such as lanterns or china.

The different types of collectibles range from lanterns to signs, china to silver and hollowware, calendars to postcards, posters, photos, and passes, badges, and pocket watches. Some collectors also base their collections on items like baggage tags, bells, builders plates, buttons, marbles, spittoons, uniforms, ashtrays, and railroad-related postal and telegraph items.

Although many railroad-related items can be bought inexpensively, some rare pieces command large prices.

Dining car collectibles include silverplated hollowware and flatware referred to as railroad silver, chinaware, glassware, linens such as tablecloths, towels and napkins and various other pieces marked with a railroad company`s logo, name, initials or slogan.

Sleeping car wool blankets marked with a railroad`s name or logo sell for $65 to $150, hand towels for $10 to $25, pillowcases for $4 to $10 each, headrest covers, $6 to about $12, and sheets, $10 and up.

Trainmen`s caps with metal badges intact are valued from $35 to $175. Cap badges, minus the caps, have various values, and examples can be found, along with other types of railroad-related memorabilia.

Any item, no matter what its age, marked with a railroad`s name, logo or initials has some value, even ballpoint pens, pencils and scratch pads.

Back in the glory days of over-the-rails passenger transportation, railroad companies strove to create an atmosphere of luxury aboard their trains. A critical part of making travelers’ experiences splendidly upscale was providing actual chinaware on dining car tables and depot restaurants. The term “railroad china” is incorrectly used by many people as a generic term for heavyweight, commercial dinnerware,

Because of the “romance of the rails” mystique captivating the public, railway relics for many years have enjoyed higher prices than similar but non-transportation items. Novice collectors must learn to recognize not only non-railroad sellers who unwittingly overprice their items, but also dishonest scammer sellers deliberately trying to profit by selling fakes and phonies. To avoid these pitfalls, start slowly but try to learn fast. Buy what you appeals to you that would keep – do not buy hoping for a fast turnover and big profit.

Collectors collect anything and everything that railroad related, or any type of piece but only from only one or two railroads. Some focus on one type of piece such as small pitchers, cup and saucer sets or plates or build on a color theme.

Railroad China
Railroad decided to pamper their riders by improving the dining experience. One way they did this was through the use of very fancy china in their dining cars.



Railroad china, like railroad silver, was a product of the boom in comfort offered to train passengers in the last part of the 19th century and first part of the 20th. Collectible railroad china is different than railroad silver, however, in that china designs are often specific to a single railroad company—stamps and markings are generally the only differentiators for silver.



Early train trips were endurance tests for passengers. Travelers were subjected to long journeys without proper restrooms or eating and sleeping facilities. Prior to George Pullman’s decision in the late 1860s to refurbish train cars and turn them into the Ritz Carltons of transportation, food service happened at train depots.

Some railroad companies used production china that could be bought anywhere and simply had their logos stamped on them—such pieces are less collectible today. Most of the better railroads had custom china patterns and styles made for their dining cars. These pieces often depict scenes along the particular route the train ran on—desert scenes for the Santa Fe, etc. Such custom pieces are especially popular with railroadiana collectors.

Condition is critical in railroad china. Damage and flaws make a huge difference in value. If a piece is extremely rare, somewhat less than perfect can be tolerable, but damage on a low end piece can make it worthless. That said, surface marks from utensils documents actual use by railroad passengers. Minimal scratching is acceptable, but it should not be so heavy as to have worn off the glaze.

Another complication is that railroad china was so varied. Many patterns are easy to spot, custom made with names and logos in the decoration. Others are what is called “Exclusive patterns” with no railway markings, but a unique design that the china company made and sold ONLY to its railroad customer. And sometimes railroads purchased “Stock patterns,” ready made ware available for any customer to buy.

China is often collected in sets, from plates and cups to ashtrays and compotes. Completing a set can be difficult because there are often many different sizes and slight variations to each item.

Probably the most memorable set of railroad china is the Baltimore & Ohio (B & O) Railroad’s blue china made in 1927 to celebrate its hundredth year. Scammell China Company made the set, though the Buffalo Pottery Company put out a trial set which is tough to find. The pieces show historical scenes of the train route from the previous 100 years in the center, with a blue border on the larger pieces showing variations of the B & O trains through the years. Although this style china is still being manufactured today, early examples are very rare and sought after.



Not to be outdone, the Chesapeake and Ohio (C & O) Railroad commissioned the Buffalo Pottery Company in 1932 to make china with a gold rim and a reproduction of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait “Athenaeum” of George Washington in the center. The dinnerware was intended to celebrate the 200-year anniversary of the first President’s birth.

Other collectible patterns include Missouri Pacific’s State Flower series, which depicted the flowers from each of the states that the train line ran through. Later, in 1948, Missouri Pacific changed over to the State Capitol pattern, which it produced it until 1961. The Milwaukee Road had sets of china with birds in various shades of pink.

Most rail companies copyrighted their proprietary designs. Union Pacific had its Herriman Blue, The Great Northern had Mountains and Flowers, the Pullman Company had Indian Tree, and, as you might expect, the Oriental Limited had an Asian-themed design. Look for railroad china with either a stamp on the back indicating which company it was made for, or a railroad’s insignia on the front. China without these marking are less collectible because the possibility exists that they were used for something other than railroads, like hotels.


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