Dining car china snatched up at railroad museum

A SELLOUT

February 10, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

Baltimore loves dining car china that was used on the B&O Railroad.

And what better evidence of that than the fact that in three months, the B&O Railroad Museum's supply of reproduction 1927 dining car china has been purchased by collectors of what has become a most famous tableware.

"It was amazing," said Gary Lyttle, manager of the museum shop. "Some 216 sets just walked out of here. One man bought 12 place settings. We sold the last complete set Jan. 30."

More china is on order.

The highly decorated, heavy china was synonymous with rail travel here from 1927 to 1971, when the last B&O long-distance trains rolled out of Camden Station. Their tables were famous for menus that featured food from the Tidewater region and the dinner, bread-and-butter, salad and dessert plates, water pitchers and gravy boats that chronicled famous locomotives, rivers and bridges.

The china was designed in the mid-1920s by Olive W. Dennis, a graduate of Western High School and Goucher College who served as the B&O's "engineer of service." Miss Dennis, who lived in Rognel Heights until her death in 1957, worked to make rail travel comfortable for B&O patrons.

The B&O Museum, at Pratt and Poppleton streets in southwest Baltimore, received permission to reproduce the patented blue-and-white china from the B&O's successor, the CSX Corp., which also features the china in its corporate dining room. Proceeds of the sale will be used to operate the museum, said Shawn Cunningham, the museum official who made the decision to order the china.

Last year, the museum ordered 350 eight-piece settings (dinner plate, tea plate, bread plate, cup, saucer, bouillon cup, fruit bowl and cereal bowl) from the Syracuse China Co. It went on sale at the end of November, but the museum found that "runny" colorings on 134 of the bouillon cups were not up to standard. This piece will have to be remade before full sets can be sold again.

"The coloring issue proves that each piece is still partially handmade," said B&O Railroad Museum chief John Ott."Workers actually have their hands on the china. It's not stamped out by a machine."

Mr. Lyttle said his shop will continue selling seven-piece sets (minus the bouillon cup). When the factory sends a new shipment, the cups will be mailed to purchasers.

Miss Dennis' design has proven to be inspired. Collectors of railroad memorabilia prize the intricate pattern that was once produced on 34 separate tableware pieces. Each piece has scenes of a locale served by the railroad -- the Thomas Viaduct in Relay, the Potomac River Valley, Harper's Ferry and the Carrollton Viaduct in Carroll Park.

On May 31, 1927, during the year the B&O celebrated its centennial, the U.S. Patent Office granted a patent for a "new, original and ornamental design for plates." The blue china went into dining car service and was an instant hit. Many pieces were sold as souvenirs at the Fair of the Iron Horse, the B&O's centennial exposition at Halethorpe.

Miss Dennis used antique English plates made by potter Enoch Wood in the 1820s as the inspiration for her dining car china.

Over the years, the B&O dining car department constantly reordered the china (breakage was high on the moving trains) from several out-of-state commercial potteries, including Scammell Lamberton, Sterling Lamberton and Shenango. Diners could purchase the tableware as souvenirs of their trips. It also was sold at the B&O Museum.

The china was cherished by B&O employees. Many sets of the new china have been bought by people who wanted to use it so their pieces dating to the 1920s and 1930s would not be harmed.

For the past decade, the Maryland Historical Society, in the 200 block of W. Monument St., has sold vintage B&O china.

"It is extremely popular," said Barbara Gamse, manager of the society's gift shop. "I can sell any piece I get in. Baltimore loves it."

The new reproduction china is available only through the B&O vTC museum shop. Call 539-2311 for information.

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