Licence Plates: A Timeline



November 07, 2012

Vehicle registration plates have been around for almost as long as there have been automobiles. The earliest were made of porcelain baked over iron and ceramic; in later years, they were made of leather, plastic and copper. During World War II, pressed soy beans and cardboard were used. Here’s a list of milestones, fun facts and trivia related to the history of license plates.

Back in September, California legislators signed into law (AB) 1658 — a law requiring the “establishment of the California Legacy License Plate Program.”

1960s CA Plate

California’s “legacy plates” will replicate the look and style of previously issued designs from the CDMV from 1956 through 1986. In addition to the regular registration fees required by law, the new plates will cost $50 for the original issuance, $40 for renewal of registration with the plates and $15 to transfer the plates to another vehicle. California motorists can begin applying for the new plates on January 1, 2013, when the new law goes into effect.

From vanity plates to specialty tags that promote political and environmental causes, states have been tweaking the style and design of license plates for over 100 years. Here’s a list of some major license plate milestones:

1893 — France became the first country to issue “number plates” to vehicles.

1901 — New York mandated license plates for vehicles, but car owners were expected to produce their own until 1909. These early plates were usually leather pads or felt metal plates with attached letters indicating the initials of the car’s owner.

1903 — Massachusetts became the first to provide state-issued porcelain license plates. The very first, featuring the number "1," was issued to Frederick Tudor. (One of his relatives still holds an active registration on the plate.)

1906 — West Virginia produced the first stamped metal license plate.

1921 — Although Alaska was not yet a state and had very few roads, its territorial government produced a license plate now considered the Holy Grail of historic plates by hobbyists and collectors. In 2000, a reported $60,000 was paid for one of the few surviving examples of a genuine 1921 Alaska license plate.

1928 — Idaho license plates appeared with the words “Idaho Potatoes,” now regarded as the first license plate slogan in America.

1931 — Pennsylvania became the first state to issue customized license plates, which were limited to a driver’s initials.

 

 

1936 — The iconic “bucking bronco”, still in use today, first appeared on a Wyoming license plate.

1944 — The metal shortage caused by World War II forced states to use alternative materials for plates, namely embossed fiberboard, cardboard and soybean-based plastic.

1957 —After meeting with world governments and international standards organizations, automobile manufacturers imposed uniform dimensions on license plates. The standard size for license plates in all American states was set at 6” x 12”.

1965 — The “vanity plate” was born when states began allowing drivers to customize their plates with letters and numbers.

1971 — After 3M introduced “High Intensity Grade Reflective Sheeting,” states made the product mandatory on license plates to improve the visibility of moving and stationary vehicles.

1990 — Most state plates stopped displaying congressional districts, county designations and police codes. States began relying on computers to contain this information.

 

 

2007 — The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administration conducted North America's first state-by-state and province-by-province survey of vanity plates. The study found some 9.7 million vehicles with personalized vanity license plates in America and Canada.

 

Comments

  1. Jim Benjaminson Walhalla, ND

    North Dakota began issuing vanity plates in 1962 - preceding the data above by 5 years.

  2. Mark Miller Canton, Ohio

    My math says that if North Dakota began issuing vanity plates in 1962 the data in the article was preceded by 3 years not 5 years. 1965 minus 1962 equals 3

  3. Pete Sandgren Norwich, CT

    Nice article! Your intro makes it sound like porcelain preceded leather, but the time line puts the leather plates at 1901 and porcelain in Massachusetts in 1903. Maybe you can clarify this.

  4. Pete Sandgren Norwich, CT

    Nice article! Your intro makes it sound like porcelain preceded leather, but the time line puts the leather plates at 1901 and porcelain in Massachusetts in 1903. Maybe you can clarify this.

  5. Bob Wenten Oakland, CA

    My family had vanity plates in Connecticut by 1950. I still have the one that expired in 57, to be replaced by the required new, larger size.

  6. Allen Shaw Charlotte , NC

    Love the 60's Vintage Califorina plate in the article. My dad had two cars that used that plate till 1969. The Plate stayed in the bottom of a tool box from 1969 till 2009 when I found it. The Plate was peeling and rusted , but it sure did restore nice. I mounted it on the garage wall with it's dealership trim plate from Vel's Ford in Torrance Ca. ..both had to be re-done , but those were some good memories. Still seeking the right 65/66 Galaxie 500 Fastback to put that plate on some day....Just like Pop's car in the day.

  7. A. Conlee Riverside, CA.

    Ronald Reagan owned a Brat for years

  8. A. Conlee Riverside, CA.

    Ronald Reagan owned a Brat for years

  9. Raymond Michigan

    It's interesting that some states require front and back plates. In Michigan at one time the State required this, but for years now only a rear plate is required. My brother-in-law who lives in Colorado (which still requires a front/back plate) mentioned some years ago it was because of a front plate found at a hit and run accident that led to the apprehension of the driver. As a result, Colorado, among other states, still uses both plates. And Michigan now requires 'reflective' plates which can be visible with directed beams.

  10. Edward Francis Tucson,AZ

    I have a Chicago Copper over steel 1907 license plate that has been in the family since about 1910. I have a photo of me in Dad's 1911 model T taken in Chicago in 1945 with this plate on the front.

  11. Ned Flynn Lake View, NY

    The statement that Pennsylvania issued stamped metal plates in 1906 is incorrect. PA did not issue a stamped metal plate until 1916. From 1906 (Pennsylvania's "first issue" through 1915, PA plates were porcelain.

  12. Richard Kaplan Alexandria, Virginia

    Now this is fun information to have. I am waiting for my vehicle to age a few more years so that I can apply for Virgina Historical Places. I like California's idea. I wish that Virgina would follow that example. Thanks for posting this. I truly enjoyed it.

  13. Douglas Klauck West Virginia

    "1957 —After meeting with world governments and international standards organizations, automobile manufacturers imposed uniform dimensions on license plates". It's interesting the WORLD Governments apparently did not agree on what the standard size should be. Also found the statement odd that in 1990 most states stopped displaying counties. Seems that today the states that did then still do. MS and TN come to mind.

  14. Greg Oliver Delaware

    Delaware first issued license plates in 1909, however the first porcelian tags were issued durning WWII and many original tags are still in use. Black background with white numbers were issured though 1946. In 1947 Delaware began issuing black stainless steel with untreated rivited numbers. I believe in 1953 the numbers began to be coated with a white reflector material made by 3M. Maybe the first reflector plates in the US. The black and whites began to be phased out in 1958, for the blue and deep yellow tags Delaware still issues today. New versions of the old porecelian and stainless steel tags can still be purchased from The Delaware Historic Plate Company. Also if interesting note, Delaware only controls tags number 1, 2, and 3. All others trade on the open market. Number 6 sold at auction a couple of years ago for a record $675,000.

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