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

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage 60s Drive Safely And Live License Plate Topper Auto Kit Gm Car Service1910 Vintage Michigan Porcelain Low 3 Number License Plate Used.Nevada 1964 License Plate - Nr - Governor's #11925 Missouri Mt Vernon Carnation Milk License Plate Vintage Antique Ford ChevyVintage 40s Willkie Campaign Original License Plate Topper Auto Gm Car ServiceVintage Matching Pair Of California License Plates E63 778 -neatDrink Pepsi Cola Porcelain License Plate Topper Station Service Soda Fountain Vintage Kendall 2000 Mile Motor Oil Porcelain License Plate Topper SignThree Star 1915 Porcelain Pennsylvania Truck License Plate Excellent #206421947 California Motorcycle License Plate Tag Vintage Antique Harley Indian BsaVintage License Plate Topper West Virginia1969 Mercury Cougar Orig California Black License Plate Car! 1969 Cougar 351 4bbl V8 - Original California 'black License Plate' Car - Pb, Ps1999 Series Minnesota State Patrol Police License Plate ++ Mn SpOriginal 1963 California Black License Plates 63 64 65 66 67 1965 1966 1967 Vintage Antique Automobile 1919 Michigan License Plate Rat Rod Model T FordC1998 ~ 2002 Series Arkansas State Police License Plate ++ Ar SpMaine Sheriff License Plate Sheriffs Police Expired RetiredA++ Superb Low # 1 1974 Washington Governor Political License Plate #1 Seattle1926 Florida License Plate Tag Vintage Antique Ford Chevy Dodge Model TVintage Original Ford Showroom Promo License Plate Genuine Fomoco Accessories 1979 Mercedes-benz 400-series 450slc Classic 1979 Mercedes Benz 450slc! Blue License Plate Calif. Car 107k Miles!1937 Texas Motorcycle Side Car License PlateGeorgia License Plate 1932 - Two DigitVintage 1958 Connecticut Motorcycle License Plate Marker Tag Number Ct Conn 1069Antique Porcelain Pennsylvania 1906 License PlateVintage Ny 44 New York State 1944 Motorcycle License Plate 2954Vintage 1945 Louisiana License Plate ~ Car Transportation Scarce 1952 Mehlville St Louis Mo Fire Dept License PlateMixed Lot 15 Old Used License Plate Sign Exp. 74-13 All Different States! Color1947 Arizona License Plate Number Tag – Nice PlateVintage Tennessee License Plate 1951 Fair Paint~carrol CountyMixed Big Lot 50 Old Used License Plate Sign Junk Yard Rusty Bent Expired 1991~1997 Colorado State Patrol Police License Plate Tag ++ Csp CoNew Mexico Original Double - Zia License Plate 1940 Official # 98Massachusetts License Plate 1928 - CodfishVintage North Carolina "state Owned" Front License Plate Highway Patrol 1970's Vintage Centennial 1949 Aluminum Minnesota Duplicate License Plate T1461960 Louisiana Lsu Centennial License Plate1910 Mass. Porcelain License Plate1911 Porcelain Maine License Plate Nr First Issue #9632Vintage Pair Of 1963 Nwt Northwest Territories War Amps License Plate Dav Tags1922 1923 1924 1936 Rhode Island Ri License Plate S Vintage Antique Collection1962 Washington License Plate ~ 1959 IssueVintage 1968 Texas Motorcycle License Plate 2697x1911 Massachusetts Ma. Mass. Porcelain Non Resident License Plate1913 N.j. License Plate #986 Porcelain Over Metal With Certified Makers No. 8260Vintage Rhode Island Motorcycle License Plate 1947 R.i.2011 Alabama Sons Of Confederate Veterans License PlateVintage Branson Mo. License Plate Topper "in The Ozarks" Mountain Man With Jug1942 Nebraska Motorcycle License Plate Vintage Antique Harley Indian Bsa KoreaVintage 1958 Louisiana License Plate ~ Sportman's ParadiseOhio License Plate, Dui - Party Plate!! "the Most Expensive Plate You Can Get"!!1954 Florida License PlateVintage Wwii New York 1943 Motorcycle License Plate1978 Tennessee Sheriff License Plate ++ Tn So1944 North Carolina Nc Motorcycle License PlateRare Vintage 1940 Alabama License Plate ~ Original Paint! 1949 Pa. Motorcycle License PlateVintage 1948 Idaho Car License Plate K 4-5031910 Pennsylvania 4 Digit Porcelain License Plate Original