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The Story of License Plates
License plates have been around for more than 100 years. In the beginning, just as cars were much different than those of today, so were license plates. In 1901, New York enacted a law requiring owners of motor vehicles to register with the state. Along with that, every automobile or motorcycle had to have the initials of the owner’s name “placed upon the back thereof in a conspicuous place,” with letters at least three inches high. There were no restrictions on size, materials, style, or color. Owners might use metal house letters on leather or wood, while others painted the letters directly onto their vehicles.
Even with the wide variety of materials and styles, the new law created a form of regulation where none existed. Automobiles, which at the time were far from being embraced by the American public, were less likely to encounter hassles from local municipalities. About a year later, licenses totaled more than 1,500.
The first jurisdiction to distribute state-issued license plates was Massachusetts, in 1903. Like many early license plates, they were made of porcelain. White on dark blue, they read “MASS. AUTOMOBILE REGISTER.” across the top. Soon other states followed. Some would assign a number and then require the registrant to obtain the plate either by creating it himself or by having a third party create it.
By the 1920’s, most states were issuing embossed metal plates. They used die machines to stamp numbers onto tin, aluminum, or steel. This basic process would hold for many years to come.
Plates had different lengths and heights. A number of states used just an abbreviated name–this was especially true of the long, rectangular-sized plates which were only tall enough to fit the numbers and had the state abbreviation placed vertically to the left or right of the serial.
Above: Examples of some early plates, when sizes varied, abbreviations were common, and slogans and graphics rare.
By the 1940’s, some states started issuing tabs. These were the forerunners of today’s registration stickers. Often the tab consisted of a small metal piece which would be clamped or inserted onto a license plate so it could be used for more than just one year. During World War II, tabs and other measures (such as using alternate materials) helped conserve metal for the war effort.
Above: Metal tabs were a method of re-validating before the advent of stickers. The 42/43 Montana is a 1942 base with a 1943 tab (a rather unique example, as it incorporates part of the state outline).
In 1956, the U.S. government and the Automobile Manufacturers Association agreed to a standard passenger license plate size of six inches by twelve inches, with standardized mounting holes and a maximum 6-digit registration number format.
Through the 1960’s, states generally issued new plates every year. They were often two colors, with all-numeric serial formats. Those with any kind of logo, graphic, decal, or stylized lettering were uncommon. By this time some states had begun issuing registration stickers. These served the same functions as tabs–to re-validate plates for an extra year or more.
Above: Through the 1960’s, states often used two colors on their plates. Slogans, used as a means of tourism and state pride (reflecting greater use of the automobile), became more common. Graphics, such as the pelican on the ’63 Louisiana base, were still rare, however. The North Dakota is an example of a plate using re-validating stickers, but many states, such as Iowa, still issued new plates every year.
The 1970’s saw a couple of significant advancements in license plates. One was the use of reflective sheeting, which improved readability, especially at night. The other was the use of screened graphics. New technology allowed artwork to be screened directly onto the plate. The 1974 South Dakota base is recognized as the first U.S. license plate to implement a screened graphic. Two years later, America celebrated its Bicentennial, and a number of states issued colorful graphic plates to mark the occasion.
Above: The 1974 South Dakota plate (upper left) was the first use of screened graphics; this parlayed into the 1976 US Bicentennial, which inspired a number of states to create colorful, graphic-based base plates.
Below: This revolution ushered in a change which has lasted up until today, with most states incorporating graphics onto their plates. While some states resisted sprucing up their plates in the remainder of the century, any “plain” base plate nowadays (hello, California) is rare. Even the non-graphic plates made after 1974 often screened the state name and, when present, the slogan (such as the Arkansas example).
In the late 1980’s, the first specialty plates were issued. Specialty plates are those available at an extra cost, with the money going to a cause or organization. Common examples include issues benefiting education, the environment, and healthcare.
Above: The Florida “Challenger” plate is generally considered to be the first specialty plate in America; by 2000, many states had started offering specialties covering a wide range of causes and organizations. Some states, such as Florida, Kentucky, and Montana, have been very prolific in issuing specialty plates. Those involving the environment are probably the most common.
As the 20th century came to a close, license plates had already evolved quite remarkably from their humble beginnings. One more significant change lay in store, however: digital plate technology. This method of plate production, by 3M Corporation, resulted in all-flat plates that typically have an unappealing default font for the serial.
Above: Digital plate technology by 3M Corporation has ushered in a new era of issues that are all-flat; most use a generic font which is, well, unattractive IMHO (e.g., Alabama, Nevada, Wyoming) while others have utilized a font which still lacks character but is easier on the eyes (e.g. Montana, Tennessee).
Below: Some states have modified bases to use the digital plate technology. In the Iowa examples, the serial is now flat and the county screened onto the plate instead of being a sticker. Minnesota changed the serial color to black with the conversion.
The future of license plates is uncertain. As recent technologies have already revolutionized many industries, license plates as we know them are vulnerable to replacement by an electronic version that would entail a digital screen.
For now, however, license plates continue to be a primary means for law enforcement to help keep our roads and citizens safe, keep the transportation system efficient, give states a platform for encouraging tourism and to exhibit pride, and allow individuals to express themselves and promote causes close to their hearts.