Romantic Era of Rail Still Attracts Fans
Every year about this time, you see fall foliage and other entertainment style train rides advertised in the tri-state area.
It seems everyone enjoys the nostalgia and romance of riding the rails.
Collectors have always enjoyed railroads and memorabilia from the heyday of rail travel, known in the collecting world as railroadiana, includes things like conductor badges, train bells, uniform buttons, ornate keys, lanterns, locks, postcards, Pullman blankets, timetables and uniforms.
But the train treasure that attracts the broadest appeal is railroad china. This is the china that was once used in the dining cars of passenger trains as they chugged along through the American landscape, taking travelers on journeys that often took days, rather than hours.
Since there were over 185 different railroad lines in the heyday of train travel, that’s a lot of china and a wide variety of patterns to search for. Some collectors choose to focus their collection on one railroad line, others try to gather china from as many different railroads as possible.
Traveling during the romantic era of passenger railroads was a much slower time when travel included time enough to look out the window and enjoy the scenic landscape, stopping at stations along the way. The train companies tried hard to make their customers comfortable and created an elegant dining room atmosphere, even though they were moving along the rails.
Dining china included everything from butter pat plates, celery plates and dinner settings to pitchers, sherbet bowls and chocolate pots. Many railroads designed their own china pattern, others used stock china and added their logo. A few didn’t add any identifying marks at all. Glassware and silver-plated flatware was produced for railroad use too and dining tables were fancy and included starched linens.
The photo in this column shows a blue and white plate that is part of the famous Centenary china once used on the B&O. It is marked with a full back stamp that gives the manufacturer’s name (Scammell’s Lamberton China, patent applied for) and eight milestone dates of the B&O’s trip across America beginning with its founding in 1827 in Baltimore.
The B&O reached Wheeling in 1852 and our own B&O terminal, now beautifully restored and used daily as West Virginia Northern Community College, was active until 1962.
This attractive china appealed to travelers and the B&O management issued a booklet that described the significance of the scenes found on the china and offered the china to travelers as a souvenir to take home. A plate cost one dollar then. Today it might sell for $50, depending condition of the plate, location of the sale, the interested buyer and other market variables.
The one in the column shows a lovely scene of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in the center of the dinner plate. Around the rim are a variety of historic train images that detail the evolution of train cars, for example “Tom Thumb,” the first American-built locomotive. The Harper’s Ferry plate is the first in a sequence of scenic plates produced.
The back stamp dates this plate to the original 1927 set. Scammel China Company of Trenton, New Jersey, produced the well-loved china and the “patent applied for” dates it to the first year of production. There were two color variations, the blue one shown here and a rare white background version, according to the website, railroadiana.org.
Train enthusiasts today refer to this as the Centenary pattern though it was originally referred to as the Colonial pattern. An interesting fact is that the original 1827 design was inspired by two souvenir plates made by one of the leading manufacturers of Staffordshire china, Enoch Wood of Burslem, England. (Staffordshire, England was the hub of blue and white.)
For collectors that are just starting out, a reference book is always a plus and Doug McIntyre wrote and published a guide on this topic with great color photos, “Official Guide to Railroad Dining Car China” (1990). You can find it on Amazon or second hand book shops.
For comments or suggestions on local treasures to be featured in Antique of the Week, Maureen Zambito can be reached via email at email@example.com or by writing in care of the Sunday News-Register.