Railroad dining car service was introduced in the second half of the 19th century. At its height, passengers could expect to choose from several options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, cooked to order by trained chefs in kitchen cars, and served on white linen tablecloths with china branded with railroads’ logos. Dining cars also served as a place to come together with fellow travelers, whether they be new acquaintances or old friends, and to share a meal while the ever-changing landscape passed by outside the window. The railroad dining experience was, for many, among the most memorable parts of train travel.
This fall, Amtrak is beginning a phase-out of its dining car service in favor of pre-packaged meals. A cost-saving measure as well as a response to perceived preferences of younger and millennial travelers, the end of dining car service is the end of a tradition for rail travelers.
Dining service during the second half of the twentieth century is beautifully illustrated through the Ira Silverman Railroad Menu Collection, held at Northwestern University’s Transportation Library. The collection is particularly strong in its holdings of menus representing the final decade of privately operated train travel in the U.S. (1960-1971) as well as menus from the early years of Amtrak. Comprising 238 menus, it casts a broad scope that covers 35 U.S. and Canadian operators and includes menus with selections ranging from luxurious five-course dinners to simple coffee shop fare, children’s menus, and cocktail menus.
Mr. Silverman began the collection during a visit to historic Penn Station in the early 1960s. He continued collecting as an M.S. student at Northwestern University later that decade, when he and a group of friends would travel outside of Chicago to have dinner on the returning evening train via railroads including the Burlington, Milwaukee, Rock Island, Gulf Mobile & Ohio, Santa Fe, and Illinois Central. It is worth noting, in light of Amtrak’s discontinuation of dining car service, that this collection was started when the collector was just the type of young passenger that the railroad is hoping to attract today.
The collection has been digitized and can be viewed in Digital Collections. Refer also to the collection’s finding aid for additional information, including an introduction adapted from Mr. Silverman’s description of the collection.
Scroll through to see a selection of collection highlights, and be sure to click on each menu to view it in its entirety.
The New York Central celebrated its streamlined 20th Century Limited, designed by renowned industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss, on the cover of the 1939 menu pictured here. The earliest menu in the collection, it presented travelers with a wide range of options including six-course dinners.
In addition to promoting new equipment, menus often promoted destinations – including the the Seattle World’s Fair of 1962, pictured on the menu shown at right and served by the Northern Pacific’s North Coast Limited.
The Great Northern Railway likewise celebrated the Century 21 Exposition with the menu pictured below, with the Space Needle prominently printed inside alongside selections including the $4.95 The Empire Builder Special. This menu also offered travelers a bit of railroad history, with a short biography of railway executive James Jerome Hill who became known in his lifetime as the Empire Builder, and after whom the Great Northern’s train was named.
Travelers who enjoyed a cocktail en route often had a wide range of selections to choose from. Often, alcohol was offered alongside food as with the pairings in the Southern Pacific menu at left, which included recommendations for a California Sherry as an appetizer and “Champagne with all foods.” Alternately, railroads printed separate beverage menus, such as the Canadian National menu shown here, with such options as Canadian or Scotch Whisky and various Collinses.
A handful of children’s menus also appears in the collection. Notable for their whimsical illustrations, these menus give a bit of insight into the passenger experience for the youngest travelers. Union Pacific’s 1962 children’s menu included a note, “Menu served only to Little Girls and Boys,” and presented healthy lunch and dinner options.
The tradition of fanciful menu illustrations was not restricted to children’s menus: passengers on the Chicago and North Western in 1963 would have awoken to the menu shown below, offering a cheerful “Good Morning!” No children’s options were included among the offerings on this menu, but it was printed with the note, “Parents may share their portion with children free of charge.”
Railroads also offered passengers the chance to dream about getaways in destinations across the country. Atlantic Coast Line Railroad pictured tropical destinations, with carefree, tanned travelers surrounded by palm trees and blue waters on menus for its Florida Special and East Coast Champion service.
The traveler’s spirit of wonder is captured in the illustration on the Great Northern’s Western Star menu. The Western Star connected Chicago, Seattle, and Portland with daily service serving Glacier National Park during the summer travel season.
Amtrak began operating U.S. passenger rail service in 1971. Originally known as Railpax, from the telegraphers’ code for railroad passenger, the railroad soon debuted an identity system behind the name Amtrak, blending the words “American” and “track.” This branding appears prominently throughout the railroad’s menus, including the menu shown here from the railroad’s early years of operation. Options on this menu included Roast Rib Eye AMTRAK, which could be ordered as a G.M. & O. Plate Dinner, reflecting the route’s origins under the Gulf, Mobile, and Ohio Railroad.
Though many of its menus from this period feature a similar focus on the railroad’s branding, Amtrak did, like the the privately-owned railroads it replaced, also use its dining car service as a promotional tool. Amtrak’s 1977 luncheon menu enticed customers to the dining car with a range of cold sandwiches and lunch entrees, presented with a cover depicting some of the railroad’s destinations and concluding with the note “Nice to have you with us.”
To schedule an appointment to view this collection, which is available on an appointment-only basis to Northwestern patrons and the public, please contact the Transportation Library at firstname.lastname@example.org or 847-491-5273. For more information on the Transportation Library’s services, collections, and policies for visitors please visit our website.