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    

X2 Trailer Steel Housing Box With License Plate Bracket Kit W/led 6" Oval LightsVintage*rare**atlantic White Flash Reflector License Plate Topper Gas Oil Sign. Old Texaco License Plate Tag TopperNos 1964-75 Chevy Pontiac Olds Z28 Gto 442 Ss License Plate Mounting Package GmVintage 1940**rare**amoco Reflector License Plate Topper Gas Oil Sign. Vintage**exceptional**mobil Pegasus License Plate Topper Gas Oil SignNorthwest Territories Nwt Spectacular Bear Graphic License Plate New Mint Nice1935 National Canada Park Pass Buffalo License Plate Topper No Reserve50+ Vintage License Plate Reflectors 1920 1921 1922 1923 1924 1925 1926 1927 1939 New Mexico Motorcycle License Plate M-358Huge Junk Drawer Lot, Vintage Lanterns Lunch Boxes License Plate Toys And More..1950s Glendale Arizona Aluminum Topper Crest Attachment For License Plate Tag Old Nos Unused Esso Oil Products Car Advertising Car License Plate Topper Sign 1957 New Mexico License Plate # 9 8 Low Number!Antique 1912 Mass Ma Massachusetts White Porcelain License Plate 14"x5.5"Vintage 1963 California Black License Plates Pair Dmv Clear Yom 1972 1973 TagsMinnesota Mn Red Cliff Band Chippewa Indian License Plate Nice Graphip Nr Low#21959/1956 California License Plate Pair-old "ham"number-excellent ConditionRare Vintage Small 1913 Michigan License Plate...no ReserveFarmers Insurance License Plate Topper CollectionAntique 1913 Mass Ma Massachusetts Blue Porcelain License Plate 12"x5.5" - Pair!West Virginia License Plate Collection. Rare 1963, Purple Heart & Dv Plates € 1930 New Mexico License Plate #11-623Lot Of 40 Old New York License Plates Variety 1929 - 1963 Some With Tags EmpireNos Oem Gm 3789614 Front License Plate Bumper Front Panel - 1962 ImpalaVintage California Black And Yellow License Plates 63 Matching PlatePair California License Plates 1951 W 55 Tag ~ Number 2r 35235Vintage Pair California License Plates 1956 With 1962 Sticker Yom Dmv Clear1911 Pennsylvania Yellow Enameled Auto License Plate With Not Transferable TagLouisiana Senator License Plate Political Government Official Low Number State Antique Bowtie B A British American Oil License Plate Topper Mint Gas Canadian 1955 #4 Kansas Motorcycle Motorbike Cycle License Plate Tag 1953 #1 Kansas Motorcycle Motorbike Cycle License Plate Tag Pennsylvania 1914 Auto License Plate Porcelain Keystone Tag Excellent!Vintage 1942 Pa Motorcycle License Plate Tag 5a90 "original Paint"2005 05 Oklahoma Ok Apachee Tribe Indian Tribal License Plate Graphic Near MintRare 1946 Alaska Fiber License Plate + 2 Photo Of Homestead & New Alaska Highway Early 1900s Antique License Plate Topper For Delivery Vehicle ?? NrLicense Plate1915 Florida Volusia County License Plate Porcelain Owner 1915-1916 Antique 1955 Pennsylvania "5555" Vanity License Plate Chrysler Ford Chevy Buick Pontiac 1999 99 Alaska Ak Gold Creek Sustina Tribal Indian License Plate Nice Tag #2(4) Vintage Usa License Plates (colorado, Maryland, Minnesota And Connecticut)1919-1934 Massachusetts,mass.ma.mixed Years License Plate LotReal 100% Carbon Fiber License Plate Frame Tag Cover Original 3k Twill Jdm /ff A1941 Alaska License Plate Number TagPair 1963 Base Yellow On Black California License Plates Szk 316 Ca Dmv ClearGorgeous Original Aaa Honolulu Hawaii Porcelain Over Metal License Plate Topper 1944 Tennessee Car License Plate Original 3 Vintage Pegasus Drive Safely - Mobil Oil Pressed Metal License Plate Toppers1926 New Mexico License Plate # 916Antique 1914 Mass Ma Massachusetts White Porcelain License Plate 14"x5.5" Flying A License Plate Topper? Advertising Sign Giant Power Original Metal1954 #5 Kansas Motorcycle Motorbike Cycle License Plate Tag 1958 #2 Kansas Motorcycle Motorbike Cycle License Plate Tag Unused Nos 1959 Louisiana Passenger License Plate With PelicanVintage 40s Ww2 Safety Patrol California Rare Auto License Plate Topper Old SignVery Rare New York World's Fair 1964 1965 Original License Plate Unisphere Nr!!!1928 Idaho Potato Vintage License Plate PairRare Vintage Nos 40s 50s 60s Acorn Magna Jewel Reflector License Plate Accessory