A Brief History of License Plates

Over one hundred years ago, the dawn of motoring imposed sudden and unforeseen demands on an infrastructure designed only to meet the requirements of pedestrian and animal-drawn traffic. Governments in the early 1900s began imposing taxes on motor vehicles that were to be driven on public roads. Some sort of device was needed that would prove the vehicle tax had been paid, just like a postage stamp on an envelope...and the license plate was born.

In the early days, each vehicle owner was simply assigned a number, and it was up to the owner to craft a legible plate out of available materials—tin house numbers were often affixed to a backing of leather, wood, or metal. Some cities and counties, especially in Florida, began registering vehicles before the state got into the game. This era didn’t last long, however, and state governments soon began issuing their own plates to ensure standards of legibility and consistency.

With this new standardization came the ability to broadcast slogans and themes across the state, and wherever its residents may travel, via license plates. New York promoted the 1939 World’s Fair on its plates and went on to promote itself as the “Empire State” in the fifties. Georgia’s 1941 plate included a full-color peach, and Idaho followed up in 1948 with a baked potato dripping with butter. Some slogans may have sounded more alluring in their own time, like South Carolina’s “Iodine State” slogan of the early thirties. Other themes have proven timeless, such as Wyoming’s bucking bronco—on their license plates consistently since 1936—or Louisiana’s pelican, a graceful figure that first appeared on the state’s plates in 1932 and made a recent comeback after a forty-year hiatus.

Canada’s 1967 centennial celebration, which many provinces commemorated on plates, foreshadowed the United States 1976 bicentennial and the bold, red-white-and-blue graphic designs that many states would bring out that year. The idea of “license plate as commemoration device” was here to stay. California’s 1984 Olympic plate, and Florida’s 1986 Challenger memorial plate, opened the door to the modern license plate themes that have expanded to embrace nearly every possible affinity.

In the ensuing years, that door has only opened more widely. States that in the past may have had one “Veteran” plate now issue dozens of different varieties tailored to the era, branch of service, or service medals received. Supporters of organizations from Rotary International, to the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science, to the National Association of Black Scuba Divers have been honored with special plate series. Texans can use plates featuring the red grapefruit, the state fruit of Texas. New York offers a reserved plate series for acupuncturists. The District of Columbia has a special plate for clergy. News photographers and reporters use distinctive plates in a few states. Massachusetts boasts one plate that no other state can offer—the “Birthplace of Basketball.” Environmental, charitable, and social causes abound.

While this website cannot illustrate all possible variations, it seeks to represent the widest possible sample of the plates most commonly collected today, and to reflect the breadth and depth of license plate history.