The movement for requiring official license plates picked up steam in the United States around the turn of the 20th century, when newspapers began reporting on the numerous injuries caused by reckless motorists. As city and state governments began implementing more rules and regulations, including speed limits, they needed a way to keep track of motorists and ensure compliance. Thus, New York became the first state to require license plates in 1901.

The first license plates were made not by governments but by car owners out of metal, wood, or leather; sometimes, owners wrote the numbers directly on the vehicle. But as cars became more prevalent, governments saw the potential of official license plates as a useful revenue stream. Motorists often resisted these changes: Owning a car was a sign of high social status and wealth, but license plates threatened to make their prized cars look more like taxis.

Since porcelain sign production methods were already relatively efficient and streamlined, this technique was a natural choice for license plates. Stamped metal plates were just around the corner, but porcelain remained popular until about 1916. Porcelain plates were usually made of iron or ceramic and covered with porcelain enamel.

In 1903, Massachusetts became the first state to issue official porcelain license plates. The very first was issued to Frederick Tudor and bore the number “1.” As the license numbers grew, Massachusetts plates became wider to accommodate the extra digits. Unlike later Massachusetts plates, these were undated.

Philadelphia produced the first dated porcelain license plate later that same year. By 1909, porcelain plates had spread throughout the Northeast and were slowly moving south and west, with 12 states and 20 cities and counties issuing official porcelain plates. In 1910, Michigan introduced the first non-passenger porcelain plates; these plates were for motorcycles and motorcycle manufacturers. By 1916, however, all but six states issuing porcelain plates had switched to embossed metal. New Mexico was the last holdout, producing porcelain plates until 1923.

As metal plates took hold, license plates began changing gradually. In 1928, Idaho became the first state to issue a license plate with a graphic (the potato). Pennsylvania made the first custom or vanity plates in 1931.

During World War II, the number of plates printed dropped dramatically in most states, as the metal was needed for the war effort. Some states even collected plates and melted th...

In 1948, Connecticut introduced reflective license plates using a technique popularized in Mexico more than 10 years earlier—the embossed numbers were coated with ink containing reflective beads. This gave the license plates improved visibility, especially at night. In the 1960s and ’70s, most states switched to a reflective sheeting invented by 3M.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

PorcelainPlates.net

PorcelainPlates.net

Porcelain plates are a small but important part of the vintage license plate collecting hobby, and Eric Taylor has … [read review or visit site]

Jim Moini's License Plate Site

Jim Moini's License Plate Site

Jim Moini's license plate site showcases a great collection of plates from the early 1900s to the present, with ext… [read review or visit site]

License Plates of the World

License Plates of the World

See the world one license plate at a time with Michael Kustermann’s amazing collection of license plates from hun… [read review or visit site]

The Bolthole

The Bolthole

Nick DiFonzo's collection and history of Texas plates. There are lots of license plate sites, but Nick has gone sup… [read review or visit site]

Plateshack.com

Plateshack.com

This massive site (14,000-plus plates) is a great starting point for seeing a wide range of license plates from man… [read review or visit site]

Advertising Antiques

Advertising Antiques

This classy looking British site features hundreds of high resolution photos of antique porcelain pre-war (enamel) … [read review or visit site]

Hemmings Auto Blogs

Hemmings Auto Blogs

This great (and frequently updated) blog from the folks at Hemmings Motor News is a visual feast of old and new pho… [read review or visit site]

Historical Marker Database

Historical Marker Database

If you're the type who pulls over when you see a 'historic marker ahead' sign, you'll love this site. Orchestrated … [read review or visit site]

Falvo Collectables Gallery

Falvo Collectables Gallery

Ralph and Carol Falvo's excellent collection of automobiles, petroliana, jukeboxes, soda, and general store items. … [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Discussion Forums

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

1933 Inauguration License Plate District Of Columbia Washington1919 California Porcelain License Plates Pair With Star 3 NumbersRare! N.o.s. 1950's Gulf Supreme Motor Oil License Plate Attachment Topper Sign1914 Michigan Porcelain License Plate / Sign,nos Museum Quality, Model T PlateVintage Franklin D Roosevelt And Uncle Sam, Cast Iron License Plate TopperFranklin D License Plate Topper Drive Ahead With Roosevelt President Memorbilia1910 Michigan Porcelain License Plate "first Year",near Mint,nice Shine On SignLicense Plate, California, Horseless Carriage, 1952, Number 739Lot California License Plate Tabs 1948 1950 1952 1953 1955 No ReserveVintage License Plate Topper Sterling Gasoline Moundsville WvRare 1911 Missouri Leather License Plate Pre State W/ Registration Dayton MotorVintage Tennessee License Plate 19511910 Michigan Porcelain License Plate "first Year",very Rare On This Sign,Holy Grail 1913 Indiana First & Only Year Porcelain,5.5x14.5,government IssueRare 1935 "roosevelt" Campaign Car License Plate Topper Sign, Pics Donkey Rare 1915 Porcelain Delaware License Plate No Reserve1954 / 1955 Arizona License PlateVintage Original 70s Nos Gm Chevrolet Usa-1 Dealer License Plate Auto Sign Car 1919 California 3-digit Porcelain License PlateVintage Mobil Oil Flying Horse Painted Tin License Plate TopperVintage Smokey The Bear Accessory License Plate Topper Hotrod Chevrolet Ford1916- 1917 West Virginia License Plate Low 3 Digit Number1940 Ford Stock Car Racing Demolation Derby License Plate Attachment Topper Sign1915 California 3-digit Porcelain License PlateArizona Copper License Plates 1932Antique 1938 Canada National Park Buffalo Park Pass License Plate Topper Rare 1944 Pennsylvania Commercial Motorcycle License Plate #2611960's - 1970's New Hampshire Nh State Police License Plate - #351Pair 1960 Me Maine State Trooper Police Highway Patrol License Plate Low Number1938 Montana License Plate Number Tag Steer HeadJohn Deere Gorman Smith Brothers Chevrolet Metal Sign License Plate TopperVintage Fairchild Aircraft Pegasus License Plate TopperRare 1956 Okinawa License Plate O 150 Red And White1922 California Motorcycle License PlateOriginal 1930's Mobil Pegasus License Plate TopperLot Run South Dakota License Plates Complete 1958-1995 No ReserveRare 1939 Pennsylvania Commercial Motorcycle License Plate #63123 Delaware License Plates - 1918 To 1984 - NrLot Of 40 License Plate #2 Mixed Grades A To C ,,priced To Sell Fast Ship Antique 1956 Louisiana License Plate €Lot Of 34 Pennsylvania License Plate Pa Craft1970 Era La Louisiana State Trooper Police Highway Patrol License Plate1914 Michigan Porcelain License Plate / Sign, Model T Plate,no Dents,very ShinyAuthentic Ford Motorsport Metal License Plate Saleen Mustang Gt 302 Shelby 5.0 1963 California Base Motorcycle License Plate With Frame And 1967 StickerVintage En Ar Co White Rose License Plate TopperAntique Junk Drawer Lot Pennsylvania Tokens Coins License Plates Advertising EtcVintage Accessory Farm License Plate Tag Topper Chevy Ford Dodge TruckVintage 1949 New York State Motorcycle License Plate1920s Aaa Oregon License Plate Topper,sign, Cloisonne Original, Nos, Mint,vividLot Of 20 West Virginia License Plate From 1976 To 2000Vintage Original Keep On Truckin Advertising License Plate Frame Tag Topper. Nr License Plate Mixed State Lot Of 15-------man Cave & Mixed Lot N Ero La Ak1937-tennessee License Plate-second Year In Shape Of The State1909 New Jersey Vintage Porcalin License Plate, Original Old Automobile Tag, '09Vintage Lot Of 54 Mixed States License Plates, 1950s - 1980s - Wi, Mn, Ca, Tx 1913 Pennsylvania Porcelain License Plate PairRare 1969 Secretary Of State Maryland License Plates #2 Vintage Original Gold National Award "aaa" License Plate Topper With Box 1958 Colorado License Plate Skier Skier Automobile