Pullman dining car collectibles track railroad glamour & history

by Anne Gilbert

Interior of dining car, 1891 (photo by William Rau)

For railroad buffs and collectors of railroad memorabilia, the news that there is a chance to ride the rails and dine in a refurbished Pullman dining car from Chicago to New Orleans is the ultimate journey. It is part of an experiment titled "Pullman Rail Journeys" that plans to expand to other routes across the country. In this case the dining car actually will be two cars attached to an Amtrak train.

Anyone who remembers riding trains in the past knows that just sitting in the dining car could be an adventure in itself. There was often a romantic aspect when two strangers shared a table and perhaps a bottle of wine. Who could forget the intimate dining car scene with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint on the 20th Century Limited in the movie North By Northwest.

Cary Grant sharing a table with Eva Marie Saint in the film North By Northwest. Credit: Railroadiana Collectors Assoc.

Of the many categories for collectors of railroad memorabilia none captures the golden age of travel more than dining car objects. The good news is that there are many pieces still available at reasonable prices. They reflect the fashions of the times from extravagant to austere. The good news for their fanciers is that they are probably the most reasonably priced of all collectibles.

The dining car was created in 1869 out of necessity as more Americans began traveling long distances from places like Chicago to the developing West. Previously, travelers had no choice but to wait for a train water stop, get off, and eat at one of the nearby roadhouses. The usual fare was stale coffee, cold beans and bad beef. An exception was the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe line that relied on "Harvey Houses" along the line operated by restaurateur Fred Harvey. They were the first interstate network of restaurants, stretching from Kansas City to Los Angeles.

Interior of the Pullman "Delmonico", c. 1869. Menus were printed on silk and offered what were considered delicacies at the time along with an extensive wine list. Credit: Wikipedia

If dining was bad, sleeping on a train while traveling a long distance was no better. George Pullman, (1831-1897), an engineer and industrialist, realized that rail travel was becoming important especially for the professional class. He decided to do something that would make long distance travel more enjoyable. After several of his designs failed, "the Pullman" sleeping car became a reality in 1867, and part of the Chicago-based Pullman Palace Car Company. An added luxury was the first dining car on his Pullman Palace line. He named it the Delmonico after the famous Delmonico restaurant in New York.

Mimbreno plate designed by Elizabeth Coulter. Credit: Railroadiana Collectors Association

The dining car became truly elegant on the Baltimore & Ohio "Royal Blue" line when the dining car known as the "Queen" opened its doors. Crystal chandeliers, fresh flowers in glass vases and gourmet menus were provided for first-class passengers. Brass chime bars called passengers to dinner. Naturally there had to be eating and serving utensils to match the elegant interiors of the dining cars. Specially designed ceramics, silver and glassware with the railroads' symbols became part of each railroad image. Special patterns were designed for each line.

In 1871 Syracuse China, the creator of pottery for restaurants and hotels, began making china for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe line. Some of the most popular ceramic pieces were designed in the 1930s by Elizabeth Coulter to commemorate the ancient Mimbreno Indians of New Mexico. They were known as the Mimbreno pattern.

Early B&O china gravy boat. CREDIT: Railroad commissary: rrcomm@sonic.net

Some railroad companies economized and used "production" china. It could be bought anywhere and they had the railroad logos stamped on them. However the top railroads had custom china patterns and styles made for their dining cars. They often depicted scenes along the routes the trains followed. Railroad silver was actually "Nickel Silver," that is silver soldered with an alloy of copper, nickel and zinc made by many companies. Most of the early pieces were made by the Meriden Britannia Company.

Silver cocktail fork. CREDIT: Dorfantiques. 12 Morris Park road, Lafayette, NJ..

That company became a subsidiary of the International Silver Company after 1898. Between 1900 and 1930 nickle silver was made by the Gorham Manufacturing Company and Wallace Co. It was also made by Reed & Barton and Smith Silversmiths. The English firm of Harrison & Howson, of Sheffield also made pieces for the Santa Fe railroad.

Whimsical snowman, hand made by Terri Sutton.

All railroad silver is marked and includes the initials, name or emblem of the railroad. Services could consist of as many as 30 pieces. Some of the more unusual pieces were corn holders, a toothpick stand, cocktail shakers and crumb trays. The shapes may have been plain and heavy but the designs were often quite elegant with engraved motifs. Silver for the Burlington routes had fluting and vase finials on the covers of coffeepots and teapots. It is marked with raised initials "B.T." When it was made by the Mulholland Bros., Inc., Aurora, Illinois. It is marked, "C.B. & Q., Mulholland Bros. and with similar marks.

Early dining car glassware was acid etched with the symbol of the railroad. In the 1930s, '40s and '50s, enamel logos decorated glass ware, both black and multi-colors. One of the major makers was the Libbey Glass Company.

During the 1940s and '50s, silver utensils were replaced by the then "trendy" stainless steel. Food was prepared by specially trained chefs. Food was "gourmet" and included pan-fried trout and regional delicacies. Many people traveled for the dining experience on the 20th Century Limited.
Today, this round trip dining experience with sleeping accommodations isn't cheap. Cost is $1,089 round trip. For details about the experience go to Travel Pullman.com.

Ann Gilbert is a long-time writer on collectible subjects.


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