• ITVI.USA
    15,909.400
    -330.930
    -2%
  • OTLT.USA
    2.776
    0.014
    0.5%
  • OTRI.USA
    21.610
    -0.170
    -0.8%
  • OTVI.USA
    15,915.300
    -318.010
    -2%
  • TSTOPVRPM.ATLPHL
    3.520
    0.380
    12.1%
  • TSTOPVRPM.CHIATL
    2.960
    -0.660
    -18.2%
  • TSTOPVRPM.DALLAX
    1.610
    0.250
    18.4%
  • TSTOPVRPM.LAXDAL
    3.340
    -0.130
    -3.7%
  • TSTOPVRPM.PHLCHI
    2.100
    -0.250
    -10.6%
  • TSTOPVRPM.LAXSEA
    3.860
    -0.220
    -5.4%
  • WAIT.USA
    126.000
    -2.000
    -1.6%
  • ITVI.USA
    15,909.400
    -330.930
    -2%
  • OTLT.USA
    2.776
    0.014
    0.5%
  • OTRI.USA
    21.610
    -0.170
    -0.8%
  • OTVI.USA
    15,915.300
    -318.010
    -2%
  • TSTOPVRPM.ATLPHL
    3.520
    0.380
    12.1%
  • TSTOPVRPM.CHIATL
    2.960
    -0.660
    -18.2%
  • TSTOPVRPM.DALLAX
    1.610
    0.250
    18.4%
  • TSTOPVRPM.LAXDAL
    3.340
    -0.130
    -3.7%
  • TSTOPVRPM.PHLCHI
    2.100
    -0.250
    -10.6%
  • TSTOPVRPM.LAXSEA
    3.860
    -0.220
    -5.4%
  • WAIT.USA
    126.000
    -2.000
    -1.6%
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FreightWaves Classics: License plates began in France in 1893

Saturday, August 14 marked the 128th anniversary of the passage of the Paris Police Ordinance. The what???

Background

Because of the 1893 ordinance, France was the first country to mandate motor vehicle registration. “Each motor vehicle shall bear on a metal plate and in legible writing the name and address of its owner, also the distinctive number used in the application for authorization,” stated the ordinance. It continued, “This plate shall be placed at the left-hand side of the vehicle – it shall never be hidden.”

(Infographic: Webdevelopersnotes.com)
(Infographic: Webdevelopersnotes.com)

Not only was France the first nation to implement vehicle registration, it had actually been proposed as early as 1749 for horse-drawn carriages in the nation. The main reason for the proposal was to track criminals. 

Germany and the Netherlands followed France’s example in 1896 to help keep track of the ever-growing number of motor vehicles. Within a few years, other countries began requiring numbered license plates and other means of identification for citizens who drove motor vehicles. 

In the United States, the earliest licensing of autos began in New York in 1901. New York’s governor signed legislation into law requiring those who owned motor vehicles to register them with the state, as well as prominently display their initials on the back of their autos.

While New York was the first state to require cars to have license plates, the owners of the cars  were responsible to make them (rather than being issued by a state agency as they are now). These first license plates were generally hand-made (most often of leather, felt or iron) and had to have the owner’s initials. 

In the 128 years since the beginning of license plates in France, tens of billions of license plates for motor vehicle registration have been produced and used in nations around the world. For decades they were made of different materials, and in all shapes and sizes. However, in 1957, most governments around the world agreed to semi-uniform license plate dimensions.

Therefore, all cars and trucks in the U.S, have 6-inch by 12-inch license plates. Motorcycles have smaller (but also uniform) license plates. In the European Union (and other areas) different sizes from those in the U.S. are used, but EU front and rear license plates are also standardized.

The first state-issued license plate

The original New York system meant that no two “license plates” were alike. However, the system was very inefficient and the lack of standardization made enforcement difficult. The “hand-made” system lasted from 1901-09; at that point New York followed the example of other states and began to mass-produce standardized license plates and distribute them throughout the state. 

The first state-issued license plates were produced in 1903, in Massachusetts. The very first Massachusetts license plate, featuring just the number “1,” was issued to Frederick Tudor, who worked for the state’s highway commission. One of his relatives still holds an active registration on the “1” license plate.

An early Massachusetts license plate. (Photo: Wikipedia)
An early Massachusetts license plate. (Photo: Wikipedia)

The early Massachusetts license plates were made of iron and covered in porcelain enamel. Their background color was cobalt blue and the number was in white. Along the top of the plate, also in white, were the words “MASS. AUTOMOBILE REGISTER.” However, the plates’ size was not consistent; they grew wider as the plate numbers grew higher. 

Between September 1, 1903 (when all Massachusetts vehicle-owners were required to have a state-issued tag) and December 31, 1903, Massachusetts issued 3,241 license plates.

Automobiles began to crowd the roads; other states soon followed the Massachusetts example. It became necessary to find methods to regulate cars, drivers and traffic. By 1918, all U.S. states had begun issuing their own vehicle registration plates. 

A 1918 license plate from Arizona, which had only been a state for six years. (Photo: wikipedia)
A 1918 license plate from Arizona, which had only been a state for six years. (Photo: wikipedia)

Annual updates 

The first license plates were meant to be semi-permanent, but by the 1920s states had begun mandating renewal for personal vehicle registration. This was done for a variety of reasons, but revenue was a major reason (and has been ever since). As the number of vehicles multiplied, states began experimenting with different methods to create their license plates. Many states mandated identical front and back license plates. These plates would generally have registration numbers in large, centered digits; smaller lettering on one side included the abbreviated state name and a two- or four-digit year for which the registration was valid. By 1920, many vehicle owners were required by their states to obtain new plates annually. In addition, new plates often varied in color from year to year. This was done to make it easier for police to identify expired registrations/plates.

Nineteen states require only a rear license plate; 31 states and the District of Columbia require front and rear license plates. The reason most often cited for front-and-back plates is the revenue generated by a front plate that can be read to pay tolls, parking garage fees, etc. 

A 1921 West Virginia license plate, made of stamped metal. (Photo: wikimediacommons.com)
A 1921 West Virginia license plate, made of stamped metal. (Photo: wikimediacommons.com)

First stamped metal plate were issued by West Virginia

West Virginia was the first state to issue license plates made of stamped metal (in 1921). Stamped metal revolutionized license plates; they were able to withstand weather of almost any kind compared to porcelain and other materials. Stamped metal license plates became the standard in the U.S. – and still are. Fifty years after West Virginia began to use stamped metal plates, the process was improved with high-intensity grade reflective sheeting to improve plates’ visibility.

This is a forged 1921 Alaska license plate. (Photo: Automobile License Plate Collectors Association)
This is a forged 1921 Alaska license plate. (Photo: Automobile License Plate Collectors Association)

Alaska issued a few license plates in 1921

Alaska was still a territory in 1921, and even more sparsely populated than today. However, the territory manufactured a limited number of license plates that are now highly collectible. Of those that were made, most are gone. The most recent sale of a 1921 Alaska license plate occurred in 2000. It sold for $60,000! 

An Indiana vanity plate. (Image: Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles)
An Indiana vanity plate.
(Image: Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles)

License plate slogans 

Almost all states’ license plates include a slogan of some kind. After all, license plates are “rolling billboards.” This practice began in 1928 when Idaho stamped “Idaho Potatoes” on its license plates. Other states followed – Ohio claimed “Birthplace of Aviation,” Texas uses “The Lone Star State” and Georgia is the “Peach State” (although South Carolina – “The Palmetto State” raises more peaches). Some states even have multiple slogans.

A University of Alabama vanity plate issued by the State of Tennessee. (Photo: Tennessee Department of Revenue)
A University of Alabama vanity plate issued by the State of Tennessee. (Photo: Tennessee Department of Revenue)

Vanity plates began in 1931

Pennsylvania was the first state to issue a license plate with a driver’s initials. This  customization began in 1931. These license plates with initials generated extra revenue for the state. “Real” vanity plates began to be issued in 1965; today they are a major source of revenue for states. All states offer vanity plate options. In terms of rank, Virginia issues the highest percentage of vanity plates, followed by New Hampshire and Illinois. Texas issues the lowest percentage of vanity plates.

World War II metal shortage 

During World War II, metals of all kinds were collected and recycled into war materiel. By 1944 the demand for metal caused license plates that had returned to the states to be re-stamped. Other new license plates were manufactured of different materials. States used embossed fiberboard, soybean-based plastic and cardboard for license plates until after the end of the war.

This Florida license plate was re-stamped. (Photo: wwiijeepparts.com)
This Florida license plate was re-stamped. (Photo: wwiijeepparts.com)

More information necessary on license plates

As the number of vehicles multiplied in the United States, more information was added to license plates. Before computers, records were kept on paper; it was easier for law enforcement if they could see information such as police codes, congressional districts and the county a vehicle was registered in. That practice ended in 1990 when license plate systems were computerized. 

Truck license plates

There are two primary types of license plates for commercial trucks with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) over 10,000 pounds – base plates and apportioned plates. If a commercial truck is used only in one state, a base plate is all that is needed, and the process is very similar to registering a personal vehicle. However, If the truck is used in more than one state (interstate commerce) the process is more complicated. These trucks fall under the requirements of the International Registration Plan, usually referred to as IRP or apportioned registration.

Various apportioned truck license plates. (Photo: atsmod.net)
Various apportioned truck license plates. (Photo: atsmod.net)

IRP is an international agreement among all the states of the United States and the provinces of Canada. Therefore, commercial trucks must be registered in each state and/or province they run through; the trucks’ owners are required to pay fees in each jurisdiction. Making it more complicated is that the amount of fees paid is based on the percentage of miles the truck is operated in each state/province. 

A truck owner pays the entire amount of fees to the truck’s “home” state. Then that state distributes the pro-rated fees to the other states or provinces that the truck operates in. Truck owners are required to establish an IRP account in their home state. Various applications must be filled out, proof of residency must be provided, and other documentation may be required (which can differ from state to state), and the registration fee must be paid.

So license plates have been around for 128 years. There are many collectors of license plates around the world. But whether you collect license plates or not, don’t forget to pay your annual fee!

Scott Mall, Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.

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