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Dining car on the B&O Railroad's Capitol Limited, June 12, 1925

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Dining car on the B&O Railroad's Capitol Limited, June 12, 1925
Smithsonian Institution, Negative #: 77-7595


This object appears in the following sections:

Work and Industry
American Railroads in the 20th Century — Railroads to Mid-Century / Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927

Lives on the Railroad: Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927
Lives on the Railroad: Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927 — A Way of Travel

Dining car interior on the B&O Railroad's “Capitol Limited”
Currently on display
From the Smithsonian Collection

This staged photo was taken on June 12, 1925, on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's premier train, the "Capitol Limited." Note the waiters standing "attentively." Normally, waiters would be working up and down the aisle, serving meal courses and drinks and attending patrons; there was no time for waiters to stand that way. (The tight spaces between occupied tables - where the waiters are posing - wouldn't let a person stand there.)

The interior of the patrons' area of a dining car on the Southern Railway in the 1920s looked very much the same as this view. Passengers starting on the Southern Rwy. and going to Philadelphia or New York could change in Washington, D.C., to Baltimore & Ohio trains going from Washington northward. Or a passenger on a Southern Rwy. train from the South could change in Washington to a B&O train going on a B&O route to the Midwest.

A note on the name, "Capitol Limited": the B&O Railroad was headquartered in Baltimore but was so proud of its mainline connections to Washington, D.C., from both west and north that the company's logo (then called a railroad's "herald") prominently featured the U.S. Capitol dome. Hence the name of this Washington-Baltimore-New York train.

Physical Description
Date Made:
Middle Atlantic
Dining cars ran on trains throughout the U.S.

Railroad dining cars were operated and staffed by the railroad (the company that owned the tracks and operated the trains). African Americans who were cooks and waiters on dining cars therefore worked for the railroad company, not for Pullman. (See Pullman-related objects and graphics throughout the 'Salisbury, N.C.' section of "America On The Move.") Most parlor cars and lounge/observation cars were also railroad-owned.

A dining car in the 1920s was staffed by a steward (in charge of the dining car and the one who seated patrons), usually three cooks working in the galley, and two or more waiters. On trains throughout the country, the steward was white and the other staff African American.

Meals were prepared entirely on-board, from fresh ingredients. Meats and vegetables were fresh; fruit might be fresh or canned. Pies and cakes were made on-board if the train traveled long-distance or overnight. Roasts, steaks, fish, chops, etc., were cut and prepared on-board. Storage lockers for china, cutlery, and glasses; ice boxes for perishables; stove and ovens; and storage for food supplies all fit into the galley. Cooks had a division of labor as in any restaurant kitchen, under the head cook. To adequately accommodate all this activity, the galley was about 1/3 of the length of the whole dining car. With patrons' seating in just 2/3 of the car, seating was limited, and thus there were usually two to three 'seating times' for lunch and supper. A passenger in a sleeping car could ask the porter to make a reservation for a given seating time.

Three customs were universal in dining cars: (1) For each seating, the steward seated patrons in first-come, first-served order as they appeared for the seating (if a passenger missed his reserved time, he missed the seating);

(2) the steward seated patrons at his sole discretion, filling tables entirely, without empty chairs (thus couples and singles almost always sat down with strangers -- but since that was the custom, most people enjoyed meeting their co-travelers in this way); and

(3) patrons themselves filled out their own meal-order cards, to ensure no mistakes in the galley; at a given table, the waiter verified patrons' completed cards before taking them to the galley (a container of little pencils on each table for passengers to use in filling out the cards was standard).

Waiters were skilled at carrying their laden trays down the center aisle of a swaying dining car and distributing food orders without mistake. Because of the tight quarters and limited seating times, high efficiency in order-taking, meal preparation, and serving was utterly essential.

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