Auto Vases: an Accessory Born from Necessity
Imagine yourself after a long day outside; you are driving down the road on a hot summer day with temperatures in the upper 90s. Now imagine there is no air-conditioning in the car; immediately a pungent odor of battery acid hits you and mingles with the stench of the other passengers’ sweat. This experience is not common today thanks to temperature controls that are standard in most cars, but it would have been the case whenever you rode in a car until air conditioners were installed in automobiles in 1939.
There were no pine-scented cardboard trees to dangle from the mirror during this time, and many car owners desperately wanted a reprieve from the foul smell. The auto vase, a term coined by auto magnate Henry Ford, was the solution to the problem. As early as 1895, small vases, which held one or two flowers that emitted a sweet fragrance, became the first automobile air-fresheners.
The auto vase is comprised of a small bud vase with a bracket that allowed it to be mounted inside the car either on the dashboard or by a passenger side window. Vases came in many designs and colors, in a variety of price ranges. They not only improved the smell but also added a touch of elegance to the car interior. Pressed glass, cut crystal, metal, porcelain, ceramic, and even wood were used for the vases, which were often paired with brackets that were fancier than the vases themselves. The fixtures could be made of silver and some were even gold plated. Smithsonian Gardens preserves three examples of these auto vases in its Garden Furnishings and Horticultural Artifacts Collection. One of the three is made from Depression glass with a sky blue satin finish, and is encircled by a nickel-plated bracket.
Auto vases were sold in jewelry stores, auto parts stores, and catalogs from companies such as Sears. Henry Ford was so pleased with these simple solutions that he offered them in his parts department and added them to his system of mass production. The service these vases provided made them a desirable feature to add to any car. With improvements in car batteries and air-conditioning becoming standard in vehicles, the auto vase was no longer necessary. In recent years, however, there has been resurgence in these novelties. Cars such as the Volkswagen Beetle revived these little vases for a fresh twist on their interiors, and drivers of other cars have caught on to the trend.
For more information about auto vases:
Steele, Evie. “For your Limousine.” Classic Car, vols. 23-25. Michigan: Classic Car Club of America, 1975. p. 22-23.
Stout, Sandra. Depression Glass Price Guide. Wayne, PA: Wallace-Homestead Book Company, 1980.
____. “Origin of automobile bouquet holders.” Popular Mechanics, May 1913. Hearst Magazines, 1913. p. 678-679.
Lounsbery, Elizabeth. “Some Automobile Accessories.” American Homes and Gardens, Vol. 10. Munn and Company, 1913.
____. “Flower-Decorated Motor Cars the Vogue.” Automobile Topics, Vol. 18. E.E. Schwarzkopf, 1909. p. 386.
–Janie R. Askew
Research Assistant, Smithsonian Gardens
MA Candidate, History of Decorative Arts
The Smithsonian Associates – George Mason University