Licence Plates: A Timeline

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.