A Collector’s perspective of the license plate hobby.  An overview and a bit of history of the lure of collecting automobile license plates.

Once upon a time old license plates were just old license plates.  Once having outlived their usefulness they were discarded, tacked up to an old barn door or nailed up to the garage walls and quickly forgotten.

This scenario is certainly not the case today.  No other hobby related to the automobile has become more popular in the past ten years or so than the collecting, studying, researching, trading, buying, selling, and the quest for valuable automobile tags with shiny new plates sought after as avidly as the rusty older ones.

It all began with the invention of the automobile.  Although various forms of vehicle registration had been documented, it was not until 1901 that New York state passed legislation calling for motor vehicle registration.  In this case, a metal disk (about the size of a silver dollar) with a registered number was attached to the dashboard of the car, while the owner would furnish a hand-made license plate bearing his initials to the rear of the vehicle.  In many cases, the issuing of plates by cities and towns came before actual state issued ones.  These are often referred to today as “pre-states” as they were required by state law but not issued by any particular state agency.

Pre-state issues were produced of a crude assortment of license plates unmatched as to size, color, and material.  Early plates were often made of brass, tin, leather, wood, steel, and even wire screening.  Some of these had no date or state identification which made them difficult to identify.  One very sought after version of the pre-state license plate is the procelainized cast iron type.  These are now simply referred to as porcelain issues amongst collectors and some can command a very high price indeed.  Porcelain license plates along with the other various homemade style plates had a tendency to chip and crack and therefore proved to be impractical.

In September of 1903, the state of Massachusetts began issuing what is generally accepted as the first state issued license plate.  This series were all numeric and were made of heavy steel with a high gloss dark blue porcelain coating.  Porcelain license plates were visually attractive, chipped easily, and remained in use in several states until about 1915.

Around 1915, license plates of a more durable material replaced several of the porcelain issues.  Most states and provinces began using embossed or debossed metal plates which in spite of the modern style graphic issues of today still remains a common practice.  As new plates were developed, a variety of designs were incorporated to make license plates more attractive with state seals, coats of arms and various symbols in abundance.  The famous bucking bronco of Wyoming and the pelican of Louisiana are two classic examples.  Slogans, descriptive of a product or a specific tourist attraction first appeared on license plates in 1928.  The 1928 issue of the state of Idaho had a most impressive potato embossed on it with incredible detail which filled the entire plate.  This plate even featured the “eyes” of the potato which were also embossed.  The Province of Prince Edward Island, Canada, printed Seed, Potatoes, Foxes as its advertising slogan.  The state of South Carolina followed suit in 1930 with the word “Iodine” and this new fad of slogans and advertising on the bumpers of the automobile was born.

More on this subject to be added. Stay tuned...

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