Some companies called them “manufacturer’s plates” or “identification plates,” and at least one railroad called them “badges.” But the name used most often was/is “builder’s plate,” a heavy, cast metal sign that displayed important information (at the minimum, the builder’s name, a serial number and date of construction) that was affixed to each locomotive for a permanent identification of that particular engine. Detailed records of each locomotive’s construction (blueprints, measurements, specifications, types and location of appliances, etc.) were maintained by each of the builders, and railroads kept for their own reference the detailed records of old repairs and new modifications whenever locomotives needed maintenance. Usually, a builder’s plate was bolted onto both sides of a locomotive’s curved smokebox as the preferred method of keeping track of each loco’s identity, as each engine would need to be stripped “down to the bare boiler” of all piping, appliances, jacketing, wheels, cab, etc., during major rebuilds. Some builders attached their plates to the smokebox fronts or cylinder saddles.
Each early-day locomotive builder took pride in its products, and large, fancy builder’s plates were attached to the side frames between the locomotives’ driving wheels, as much for decoration as for identification. There was no mass-production in those days, so each builder’s plate began as a separate, hand-carved, wood pattern from which an individual sand mold was made for the pouring of molten metal—usually bronze—into its hollow cavity. As locomotive demand increased and production accelerated, sturdy, reusable wood patterns with removable and interchangeable serial numerals and dates replaced the time-consuming and somewhat fragile hand-carved patterns. But as locomotives became more utilitarian and less stylish, their builders’ plates shrank in size and became less ornate. Ah, American productivity and efficiency at their best!
During the late 1800s, locomotive manufacturers decreased in number and began employing builders’ plates of various geometric shapes to differentiate their companies, most using circles, rectangles, diamonds and ovals at one time or another. After 1904, the American Locomotive Company’s nine subsidiary U.S. companies began using standardized rectangles, Baldwin Locomotive Works had been using round plates since the 1870s, and in 1918 the Lima Locomotive Works began using diamonds. Porter, a builder of smaller industrial steamers, used a shield shape. And supplier Locomotive Firebox Company used distinctive heart-shaped plates decorated with a bas-relief image of their popular product, the Nicholson Thermic Syphon, “The Heart of the Locomotive.” A few railroads, notably the Pennsylvania, the Norfolk & Western, and the Baltimore & Ohio, constructed their own steamers and attached their own style of plates with class designations (e.g. K4s). Because of its durability and resistance to corrosion, bronze was the favored metal used to make most builder’s plates. However, for the locomotives rebuilt at his Detroit Toledo & Ironton shop in Flat Rock, Michigan, the ever-frugal Henry Ford reportedly used old freight car journal brasses to cast new builder’s plates, as evidenced by the gray babbit metal swirling through his rectangular builder’s plates of recycled brass. Ah, American cost-saving at its best!
During World War II, copper was needed for massive amounts of military electrical products, and copper’s cousins, bronze and brass, were essential for manufacture of more than 50 billion rifle and pistol shell casings. To prevent shortages of these red metals, beginning in 1942 all locomotive builder’s plates were made from more plentiful cast iron, and 500 million, one-cent U.S. pennies were minted in 1943 from steel, not copper. After the war, builder’s plate appearances were altered to reflect the addition of new diesel locomotives to the builders’ old product lines. In 1949, American builders ended 120 years of steam locomotive construction, and within a decade more efficient, modern diesels had vanquished tired, old steamers to scrap, with a lucky few enshrined in city parks and museums as monuments to the Age of Steam. During the 1950s-60s, builder’s plates from America’s foremost diesel loco manufacturer (EMD, the Electro-Motive Division of General Motors) had been relegated to cheap-looking, stamped pieces of stainless steel in the shape of a hot dog on a bun. Ah, American asset-saving at its best!