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    

Ingram Richardson Antique Porcelain 9561 Pennsylvania Penna 1906 License PlateFord : Thunderbird 312/245hp V8 Automatic With Factory Hardtop! 1957 Original California 'black License Plates' 312 V8 In Original Willow Green!License Plate Topper Bonneville Salt Flats Wendover UtahAntique 1938 National Canada Park Pass Buffalo ,license Plate Topper ,beaver Antique 1939 National Canada Park Pass Buffalo ,license Plate Topper ,beaver Ingram Richardso Antique 10444 Porcelain Pennsylvania Penna 1907 License PlateVintage En-ar-co Motor Oil Co. License Plate Topper, National Refining Company1907 Porcelain Pa License Plate Vintage Automobilia Collectible 20-wAntique 1934 National Canada Park Pass Buffalo ,license Plate Topper ,beaver Vintage 1940-50's Keep Oregon Green-prevent Forest Fires License Plate TopperVtg 50's Pure Oil Co. Drive Safely Old Metal License Plate Topper Sign.1950'sOld Dr Pepper Hot Or Cold Car Advertising License Plate Topper Soda Sign Ingram Richardson Antique Porcelain 8838 Pennsylvania Penna 1908 License Plate1911 New Hampshire Porcelain License Plate Numbers #3838 No ReserveVintage 1955 Baltimore Orioles Maryland License Plate Set ***ultra Rare***Vintage "slow Down" Skull & Bones License Plate Topper Reflector By Snow CraggsWest Virginia License Plate Number Tag Topper - $2.99 StartAuthentic Michigan Sheriff License PlateFlorida 1925 License Plate - Nr North Carolina 1941 License Plate - NrLicense Plate, Black California, 1963, Pair, Dmv Clear, Qvr 516Louisiana 1935 License Plate - Nr1912 Wisconsin License Plate - Riveted, Low Number "29"Chp 11-99 License Plate FramesVintage Antique Ohio License Plate Pairs 1910 - 1930Original Pennzoil Metal Advertising License Plate TopperHawaii 1940 License Plate - NrOrig Star Safety License Plate Topper National Safety1963 & Up California Ca Black & Yellow License Plates * Pair * Wrk 007California 1956 Motorcycle License Plate - Rare - Look!Huge Lot Of Alaska, Arizona, Montana & Washington Passenger License PlatesVintage Volkswagen License Plate Frame Las Vegas Sunland Motors Porsche 356 BugVolkswagen Vw Empi Usa Og 2pc Globe License Plate Frame Gene Berg Cal LookD Lot 5 Nos Vtg License Plate Toppers State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance AdvColorado 1920 License Plate - Nr Vintage Radio Tv Philco Factory Supervised Service License Plate TopperIngram Richardson Antique Porcelain 10444 Pennsylvania Penna 1907 License PlateIllinois 1930 1931 Low Number # 6 " 1 Horse Wagon " Mendota License PlateVintage 1963 63 California License Plate Plates Set (2) Black & Yellow # Qar 969South Carolina 1930 "iodine" License Plate - NrMetal License Plate Topper Art Deco Vintage Nostalgia Traditional Hot Rod SctaFlorida 1921 License Plate - Nr 1939 Louisiana License PlateRare Old License Plate Arizona 1933 Number Yf21 All Copper Metal 10.25 X 5.5 In1963 California License Plate Pair. Amazing W/ Santa Maria Rambler Frames. Chev7 Rows Bling 3d Bow Rhinestone License Plate Frame Diamond Crystal Clear Silver1916 Virginia License PlateVintage Advertising Car Auto Part World War Ii License Plate Topper Shell Oil CoWisconsin 1913 -pair- Of License Plates - Rare - Look!Wisconsin 1912 -pair- Of License Plates - Rare - Look!1912 New Hampshire Non-porcelain License Plate Numbers #694 No Reserve~~rare~~arizona Veterans - Former P.o.w. - Pearl Harbor License Plates Set Of 3Lot Of 15 Vintage License Plates Sd Mo Iw Sy Wa Pa Mi Co Vi Il Nc Mi Mi MoLot Of 20 Mixed United States License PlatesVintage Original California Black & Yellow Motorcycle License Plate1915 New Hampshire Porcelain License Plate Numbers #15513 VisitorWisconsin Badgers Football License Plate Topper Auto Attachement 1940's OldRare And Amazing 1920 Texas License PlateVintage Piper Cub Airplane Advertising License Plate Topper, Nos, Unused!!!Vintage Accessory Farm License Plate Chevy Dodge Kansas Truck Rat Rod Topper