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 Original 60s Nos Ford Racing Steel Dealer License Plate Auto Car SignSinclair Oils Gas Advertising Porcelain License Plate Topper Oil Sign Vintage 1930's Farmer's Auto Insurance License Plate Topper SignAccessory 1/2 Ton License Plate Tag Topper Chevy Ford Dodge Pickup Truck Rat Rod1915-porcelain Pennsylvania License Plate-15" Stamped-brilliant Mfg-vintage SignBeautiful 1914 Michigan Porcelain License Plate #58569Vintage Dekalb Seed Corn License Plate Topper Nice New Old Stock1964 Tennessee Motorcycle License Plate - Original!1951 Tennessee License Plate Vintage 1930's 1932 Arizona Copper License Plate Ford Hotrod Rat Rod Car TruckVintage 50s Air Force Reserve License Plate Auto Sign Trunk Old Car Tag Topper1914- Porcelain California License Plate-16"-car Tag-sign-vintage Antique1967 California Black License Plate Pair 1963 Ca 67 Nice Original PaintVintage 1951 California License Plate & Dealer Frame Howdy Chevy Buick Livermore1956 Tennessee National Guard License PlateVintage Accessory Farm License Plate Chevy Dodge Kansas Truck Rat Rod Topper1951 Tennessee License Plate Maryland Motorcycle License Plate Number 11911 Wisconsin License Plate Rare Dated 1911 Rare-1912 Michigan Porcelain License Plate-state Seal On Front-12"-vintage SignOk Used Chevrolet Cars Trucks License Plate Nice And Rare1939 North Carolina License Plate Pair 39 Nc PassengerOriginal Kendall Oil Hand Sign License Plate Topper Advertising Sign1978 South Dakota Motorcycle License Plate - Number 11915-18 Minnesota License PlateVtg Nos Chevrolet Sales Co St Louis License Plate Topper Sign Chevy W/ EnvelopeFranklin D License Plate Topper Drive Ahead With Roosevelt President Memorbilia1923 Tennessee License PlateVintage Phillips 66 Safety Pays License Plate Topper Rat Rod Nice1912-porcelain License Plate-pennsylvania-14"-brilliant Mfg Stamp-vintage SignRare 1968 69 70 71 72 Oldsmobile, 442, Cutlass, Hurst Olds, Dealer License PlateOk Used Chevrolet Cars Trucks License Plate Nice RareMetropolitan Police Washington Dc License Plate Tag Mpd Mpdc1912 Michigan Porcelain License Plate, Nice Vivid Color,few Chips, No Dents,rareVintage Original 1950s Rat Rod Ford"high Boy", License Plate Topper Sign,6"x11"# 7 *1957* New Hampshire "deputy Sheriff" License Plate 2 Digit #7 Cops-police1936 Mobil Gas Pegasus License Plate Topper Drive Safely Rare Unfaded Blue1909 Pennsylvania Porcelain License Plate, Nice Vivid Color,few Chips, No DentsVintage 1951 California License Plate & Dealer Frame Pisenti Lincoln-mercury1954 Washington Motorcycle License PlateVintage Tonka State Hi-way Dump Truck Georgia License Plate Old Lot 1957 1966Vintage Metal Mercury Automobile El Monte California License Plate TopperVintage 1986/87 Nevada State Police Highway Patrol Trooper License PlateAccessory 1 Ton License Plate Tag Topper Chevy Ford Dodge Pickup Truck Rat RodVintage 1940 Panama License Plate 3-028 Original Wartime Plate Very Rare Original 1951 California Motorcycle License Plate - Dmv Clear 1913-porcelain-enamel-pennsylvania License Plate 14"-brilliant Mfg-vintage SignVintage Original National Award "aaa" License Plate Topper Accessory Vintage Metal Grand Coulee Dam License Plate Topper Washington PaintedVintage Piston Jockeys Bayonne N.j.car Club Plaque Sign License Plate Topper. 1917 New Hampshire Motorcycle License Plate,nice No Touch Ups,harley Indian,rare1914-porcelain Pennsylvania License Plate-14"-brilliant Mfg Stamp-vintage SignSaleen Metal License Plate Unpainted From 2000 Mustang S281 S351 Ford Cobra Gt Genuine Vintage New York Ny Sheriff License Plate Statue Of Liberty Antique License Plate Mixed State Lot Of 15----alaska-la All/am---man Cave-lic ArtNos Chevrolet Dealership Accessory Usa-1 License Plate1909 Cincinnati Ohio 1 Horse Wagon License Plate1940 North Carolina License Plate 40 Nc Passenger Restored 1946 Tennessee License PlateVintage Detroit Michigan 1935 License Plate Topper Reflector Ford Dodge Chevy