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    

Vintage 40s Ww2 God Bless America License Plate Topper Ford Chevy Dodge Gm BuickVintage 1909 Massachusetts Porcelain Metal Car License Plate Gas Oil SignVintage Nos Aaa Michigan License Plate Topper Ford Chevy Dodge Gm Mercury BuickExtremely Rare Orig 1914 Porcelain Bc Motorcycle License Plate # 213California License Plate Pair, 1951Very Rare 1924 Alaska License Plate CollectorsExtremely Rare Orig C 1904-10 Bc License Plate # 1059 Right From The FamilyRare Orig Pair Of Matching 1919 / 1918 Bc License Plates British Columbia # 1595Vintage Porcelain 1909 Ohio License Plate - Tag # 15623 5 Digits , AntiqueRare Orig Pair Of Matching 1920 / 1922 Bc License Plates British Columbia # 1595Very Rare Orig Pair Of Matching 1921 Bc License Plates British Columbia # 1595Old Metal Souvenir Niagara Falls Automobile License Plate Advertising TopperHuge Lot Of 65 Vintage Expired License Plate Plates For Craft - No Scratch+dent Nos Usa 1 License Plate 1970s Small Hole DesignNew York 1910 Prestate License Plate - NrVintage 1932 Arizona Az Copper License Plate Dealer Plate Dlr U2 Maricopa1951 Delaware Station Wagon Pc License Plate 1st Issue American Legion Topper NrGeorgia 1941 License Plate - NrRare Vintage Jackson's Hole Wyo License Plate Topper Metal 1940 1950Orig Pair Of Matching 1923 Bc License Plates British Columbia # 159584 Saskatchewan War Amp Tags License Plate Dav Almost Complete Set 1946-1970Early North Carolina 4 Digit License PlateVintage 1919 Porcelain California License Plate With Star. Nice. Estate Find. Aj Foyt Racing Indycar 1988 Houston Dealer License Plate Foyt 8Vintage Re-elect Roosevelt License Plate Topper/franklin/fdr/political CampaignOld Souvenir License Plate Topper Old Forge Ny Adirondack Mountains Sand PaintedVintage Pure Oil Purol Pep Oil Metal License Plate Topper 9" X 5 1/2" Gas ~*~estate Find~*~ 1915 New York Porcelain License Plate 2 Vintage Glass Red Car Truck Motorcycle Bicycle License Plate Jewels ReflectorsNebraska 1940 "penis In The Prairie" License Plate (gabes Garage) 1955 Maine State Police License Plate - State Trooper Plate - Headquarters #101912 Maine 3 Digit #907 Porcelain License PlateRepeal 18th Amendment License Plate AttachmentVintage 50s Nos Aaa Award Original License Plate Topper Ford Chevy Gm Accessory1950's~mt. Evans & Summit Lake~altitude 14,260 Ft.~license Plate Topper~unused~Vintage Porcelain 1908 Ohio License Plate - Tag # 3807 4 Digits , Antique1961 Delaware Ham Radio Porcelain License Plate Tag K3delRhode Island Manufacturer License Plate, Dealer, Low 2-digit Number, 25 - Nice!!California 1947 License Plate - Nr - W/ Frame1929 1930 Vintage Delaware License Plate Tag # 413 (rare Low #)Canada Northwest Territories Polar Bear License Plate (gabes Garage) Scarce Orig 1934 Bc Motorcycle License Plate # 282Vintage Farm License Plate Topper Accessory Pickup Truck Dodge Chevy Ford GmcSet 2 Vintage German Auto License Plates Bundesfinanzverwaltung1983 83 Rhode Island Ri Ocean State State Police Cop License Plate #18 Rare OneToledo 1932 "taxi" License Plate - NrVintage License Plate Or Topper? **reno Nevada**"jesus Never Fails" Vintage License Plate Topper Morning Cheer Philadelphia Pa California Black Plate Matched Pair 1969 1970 Chevelle Ss 396 License Plates 1947 Tennessee License Plate Pair, Original , Rare Plate #18d504Pdq License Plate Topper From Los Angeles. Extremely Rare, No ReserveWyoming 1924 License Plate - NrPair Of 1955 Tennessee State Shaped License Plates Tags 1918 Nebraska License Plate Original Paint Single Plate Year No ReserveVintage California Yellow & Black License Plates 56-62 Years Bvc 519 Dmv Clear!!Vintage 1913 Massachusetts Porcelain Metal Car License Plate Gas Oil SignMixed Lot 10 Nos Oklahoma License Plate Sign 1970s Color Type LookCalifornia 1939 "world's Fair" License Plate - NrRare Pair Of Matching Bc License Plates 1924 # 767 British Columbia Orig PaintRare Pair Of Matching Bc License Plates 1925 # 628 British Columbia Orig Paint