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.

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