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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. Slogans and graphics were 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.
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. States began experimenting more with slogans and graphics, and some began issuing registration stickers, eliminating the need to issue new plates every year or issue tabs. However, many states stuck to the two-color, annual plate formula throughout the 1960s.
The 1970s 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, the USA celebrated its Bicentennial and a number of states issued colorful graphic plates to mark the occasion. This would usher a change in license plate design which has lasted through today.
After the burst of Bicentennials hit the road, plates with screened graphics were found with regularity on roads throughout the U.S. Some states still used traditional graphics, however.
In the late 1980s, the first specialty plates were issued. Specialty plates cost extra and contribute money to a cause or organization. Common examples include ones benefiting education, the environment, and healthcare.
As the 20th century came to a close, license plates had already evolved quite remarkably from their humble beginnings. The latest significant change is 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.
The future of license plates is uncertain. Much to the chagrin of collectors, digital license plates are already on the roads in California and Arizona.
For now, however, license plates continue to be the 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.