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Train portraits are a collector favorite

By Neil Shafer

Collecting by topic has long been regarded as one of the most popular ways of forming a collection. One thing I’ve found out for sure is that methods of transportation are among the high favorites of a great many individuals. I would say that of the various modes of travel featured on collectibles, chiefly trains, ships and planes, those showing trains of any sort are the most sought after. (I will admit that perhaps I feel this way because I do favor this subject above the other methods of moving around.)


This is Richard Trevithick and his drawing of the earliest version of a locomotive.


Here is a rendition of one of the first actual trains, a crude locomotive pulling two stylized passenger cars that some writers have said resembled stagecoaches with flanged wheels. This scene has to date from the early 1830s.

The nicest thing of all is that there are a number of choices of fiscal papers one can select from to satisfy this collecting urge, and from all over the world. What may surprise you about our discussion this time is the rather wide variance of pieces that portray some sort of train or part thereof. I say this without having searched out such items, but I feel that my assessment will prove to be correct.


It must have been thrilling for those passengers in this car as they rode on such a crude train as this. The passenger car really does look like a stagecoach.


Here you see yet another strange-looking passenger car, probably from the later 1830s.

One piece I found that gives us some neat background on the beginnings of the steam locomotive is shown as the first image above. It consists of a drawing created by one Richard Trevithick (1771-1833), the Cornish inventor of the steam locomotive concept. A drawing of his engine that was made in 1804 accompanies a portrait of Trevithick himself. Background history includes the following narrative: “Beginning with models in 1797, Trevithick succeeded in producing a steam locomotive…on Christmas Eve 1801 made its celebrated ascent of Camborne Hill, hauling…seven or eight enthusiasts, hanging on as best they could. A sketch dated 1803 of a Trevithick design for a Railway Locomotive, led to the building of the Pen-y-Darren Engine…on 21 February 1802, hauled the world’s first steam train.”


A Reward of Merit was a certificate given to students for scholastic achievement. They date from the 1830-40 period. This one has images of no less than three early trains—one at left, two at center.


Improvements in efficiency kept on coming, along with less noticeable changes in basic design. Here you have a train vignette adorning a government check for two cents issued by the U.S. Post Office Department in 1908. Printer was none other than the BEP (sans imprint).

Everyone is aware that train styles have changed dramatically over the years, thus one obvious goal would be to locate as many different as possible. Something extra to look for is the name of a famous train on a collectible. There are a number of trains that were well known for various amenities, and one would think that acquiring an item from one of these would be a highlight of any collection. I rode the great silver-colored Burlington Zephyr from Chicago to Denver in the late 1930s. I remember it as a great ride; I only wish I had kept a souvenir of that event.


A further evolution in locomotive design resulted in the more powerful appearance of this engine as it pulls a passenger train around 1890-1900.


By about 1860 the appearance of trains had undergone a drastic metamorphosis as this engraving demonstrates. This illustration shows a more or less typical Civil War-type vehicle.

Certain collecting areas produce more train vignettes than others. I believe chief among these would be scripophily (study and collecting of stock certificates and bonds). While I don’t particularly like the word, I guess it serves to separate stocks and bonds from other kinds of exographic materials such as checks, advertising notes, lottery tickets and other fiscal documents. From what I have seen of stock certificates that have images of all sorts of trains, there are literally hundreds to choose from. Best of all, a good many appear to be rather easily available on the market.


Here you see a side view of a locomotive from the 1890-1900 years.


An advertising card for travelers checks from Adams Express made in 1913 also shows a locomotive similar to the 1908 rendition by the BEP.

As trains were the backbone of the domestic transportation industry worldwide for a great many years, it is only natural that stock certificates from those years would consist most often of pieces featuring some really wondrous scenes showing whole trains, locomotives or just single cars for various reasons.


The roundhouse was where locomotives were refurbished and made mechanically sound. Here is a group of them in such a setting, ca. 1920s-1930s.


This is a scene ca. 1940s of two trains going in opposite directions passing workmen tending to the tracks at center.

The individuals who drove these massive vehicles had special passes made for various reasons. I would expect that at least a few of them will be found to show some sort of train vignettes; we’ll soon see. Those that I am already familiar with generally lack any such vignette. In fact, to my great surprise, the group that I was able to examine for possible illustrations was totally devoid of train vignettes.


This may be one of the last of the modified steam engine designs before the modern diesel locomotive took over.


The diesel engine is presented here, along with its various statistics. There is no date on this card but it is estimated at ca. 1960.

In studying these stock certificates I have noticed that some security printers involved with producing these pieces are not known for making any bank notes, yet their overall production quality appears to me to be quite high. I imagine that individuals more acquainted with the many companies that did produce such certificates are not surprised at this situation.


Here is a diesel hauling a freight train much as we see it today.


On a very small Chinese ration (?) coupon of 1991 this rendition of a passenger train is shown.

Another source that I am sure will prove a very fertile field for train images is the vast area of checks, mostly U.S. Again, it is only natural since checks were so widely used during the heyday of travel by tracks. Just imagine all the businesses that made use of the railroads for freight distribution during much of the 19th and over half of the 20th centuries and you might garner some idea of the breadth of this part of the collecting scene. The one caveat with respect to these checks is that so many of them will portray rather similar trains since they are from the same general time frame, usually from the later 19th century through the earlier part of the 20th. That means we have to search other venues for images of trains that do not adhere to this pattern.


Horseshoe Curve in Pennsylvania is a well-known landmark as well as a tourist attraction. Pairs of train tracks traverse this wondrous territory, as you see here. There are images of three trains shown, two of which appear to be very long passenger carriers pulled by diesels.


This image is of a modified steam engine as seen on a stock certificate from Belgium.

Yet another area that should be a part of any collection of train vignettes is that of fiscal documents issued by transportation companies that mention trains but do not have any pictorial design. Personally I feel that they occupy a special place in this collecting field and should not be ignored. True, they do not add a lot to any display that boasts some great train portrayals, but with proper explanation they can add a certain dimension to the whole collection.

With all the above points in mind, I hope you enjoy the pieces illustrated here and see what stories they may tell. Many of the images are taken from stock certificates or bonds.

This article was originally printed in Bank Note Reporter. >> Subscribe today.

More Collecting Resources

• The Standard Catalog of United States Paper Money is the only annual guide that provides complete coverage of U.S. currency with today’s market prices.

• When it comes to specialized world paper money issues, nothing can top the Standard Catalog of World Paper Money, Specialized Issues .