Smithsonian Automobile Collection Radiator Emblems

How do you represent an automobile manufacturer in a few inches? How do you represent trends in automobile manufacturing in 12 square feet? What is a radiator emblem and how can it be used in an exhibit?

Radiator emblems were colorful metal plates with a manufacturer’s name or logo that attached to the radiators of early automobiles. Varying in shape and size, but never more than a few inches across, the emblems were small branding devices.

As vehicles became more popular in a national market, people began associating the company name and logo on different vehicle models with a specific manufacturer. Radiator emblems indicated the type of engine and place of manufacturing. They also appealed to drivers’ sense of style and class by using iconic images and a few words.

In the America on the Move exhibition, curators wanted to highlight the radiator emblem collection and explain trends in automobile manufacturing, but they were limited by space. Curators decided to use the radiator emblems—small, but representative, parts of much larger objects—to tell the story.

The number of automobile manufactures in the United States changed dramatically during the first half of the 20th century. In the early 1900s, there were only a few manufacturers producing a limited number of vehicles. The number of manufactures steadily increased, peaking in the 1920s with over 100 manufacturers. Competition and consolidation during the Great Depression greatly reduced the number of manufactures. There are now fewer manufacturers producing more models and more vehicles. How many American manufacturers can you name today?

Graph of automobile radiator emblems representing automobile manufacturers during the early 20th century.

The exhibit team decided to make a bar graph showing the number of manufactures in five year periods. The bars of the graph were studded with radiator emblems, each representing approximately 35 manufacturers. Emblems were chosen for display because they represented different types of engines (electric, steam, and gas), showed different cities of manufacturing, had interesting mottos, or were artistically distinctive.

The 278 emblems in the museum's collection cover automotive history until 1969. Unfamiliar makes and models appear, as well as retired models from known makers and different logos from familiar manufactuers.