THE BUYABLE PAST
The first railroad passengers boarded an American train in 1830. They’d better not have been hungry. Dinner wasn’t served until 1868, when George Pullman designed a sumptuous dining car for the Chicago & Alton.
Pullman’s “Delmonico” and the dining cars that copied it on hundreds of lines all over the country offered meals cooked to order and table settings equivalent to those in a hotel restaurant. Gentle chimes called passengers to dine, and for a hundred years after the first tones sounded, the best dining cars were on a par with any restaurant in the country. Railroad chefs had a special advantage, gathering local ingredients in farm towns iu fishing ports as they went along. Delicious food was essential to drawing customers, and the railroads willingly subsidized the feast, typically losing 50 cents on every dollar spent in their dining cars.
Amtrak still offers dining-car service on some of its routes, but an era is nonetheless over. You can no longer hear the chimes and order a “Great Big” baked potato on a Great Northern train. You can’t look forward to a steaming casserole of chicken pie on the Santa Fe Chief or linger over one of the Twentieth Century Limited’s renowned custard desserts. For those who consider the dining car of the past the happiest convergence of human beings and train travel, only remnants are left. Custom china is the most evocative.
Most collections are built around favorite railroad lines or specific china patterns. Sadly, though,
the value is so high that no one serves meals on
railroad china anymore. The era really is over.
Logo The name of the railroad was incorporated in about half the designs used in dining cars. Small railroads nearly always used logos; examples from obscure lines generally cost less than $100. Recent collector prices: Twentieth Century Limited plate, $800; Atlantic Coast Line plate, $90.
Pattern Some designs have no connection to railroading; the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe’s “Mimbreno” was based on South-western Indian art. But collectible pattern-china always is stamped with both the name of the maker and the railroad on the bottom. Well-known patterns are as expensive as logo china, although more generic pieces can go for less than $50. Recent prices: Mimbreno cup and saucer, $200; Southern Pacific “Prairie Mountain Wild flowers” plate (worn), $10.