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Iowa, and Rhode Island followed suit later that same year. Iowa became the first state to require the state abbreviation to be placed on the license plates. Cincinnati, Ohio started issuing brass plates in 1907, and Pennsylvania delegated the responsibility to the county governments. This caused a bit of confusion because there could be a number 1 plate in every county in the commonwealth!

Text by

Justin Mattes Images by

the author and various sources


n the beginning, license plates were designed to keep track of speeders and reckless drivers and weren’t seen as a source of income for the states. Back in the early 1900’s when the automobile was in its infancy, the common remark whenever these new machines broke down was “Get a horse!” Once cars became a bit more reliable, the next step was how to keep track of them. The next phrase hollered was “Get a license plate.” Automobiles and license plates have shared a rich history. The first license plates were leather pads with metal numerals riveted onto them. Today, license plates often sport amazing graphics depicting everything from cheering on a favorite sports team to funding research projects. Some people are so fascinated by these “pieces of tin,” that they collect hundreds, even thousands of them, often displaying them in garages, bars, and dens.

In the Beginning

Long before municipal standards, license plates were made from all kinds of materials, including brass, wood, and tin with numbers painted onto them to create a vehicle license plate. People even turned to their local blacksmith to make 36

Garage Style Magazine Summer 2013

a metal tag to hang on the back of their horseless carriages, and with the horse and buggy fading from the landscape, blacksmiths were happy to have the work making these new, rectangular plaques. Some people actually painted numbers directly onto their automobiles or bumpers, but no matter how they were created, the plates were called “per-states,” meaning they were made by the vehicle owner, not issued by a government agency. In 1901, New York became the first state to issue leather license plates statewide from a central office. Leather was one of the most common materials because it was durable, yet pliable and wouldn’t tear or rip easily. It could be drilled or stitched, and rivets were used to attach the numbers. Big cities such as Chicago started a standard of actually keeping records of the numbers issued to certain vehicles in 1903. This required the car owner to register a plate number with city hall and to mount the number on a suitable material. To prevent fraud, the city required specially-made digits not available in hardware stores. During the same year, Detroit enacted a similar system, and Minnesota started issuing plates on a county-by-county basis. Washington D.C. started issuing license plates in 1904; the city required residents make their own license plates. Maryland,

collect fire-related plates; an amateur radio operator might try to obtain a call sign license plate from every state. Some collectors might even look at plates from Canada to broaden their scope.

License Plates as Art

Building on the collector realm, recent years have seen artists turn these pieces of state-issued metal into striking works of folk art that have been hung everywhere from doctor’s offices and radio stations to museums. Everything from road signs to lamps have been made from these pieces of tin, and very recently, women’s purses have been made of license plates, and very commonly, license plates have been shaped into state maps, even maps of the entire United States. Some plate collectors are devastated by this use of license plates, while others see this as a unique use for plates that are otherwise not worth very much to anyone outside of the plate collecting realm.

A collection of early number New Jersey plates.

The art and evolution of the plate

Top left, one of the earliest plates; top right, a collection of handicap plates from around the country at the Orange Grove Center in Chattanooga, TN; bottom left, a rare war era plate.

Setting the Standards

In 1955, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) decided to make 6” x 12” a standard dimension for all license plates used on vehicles in the United States. This was a request by vehicle manufactures who wanted to design a specific place on a vehicle to securely mount a license plate. New Jersey and Delaware were the last two states to convert to the 6” x 12” format. New Jersey used the old format until 1959, and issued tabs every year from 1953-1956. During 1957 and 1958, motorists received windshield validation stickers, but kept the 1956 tab on their plates. New registrations in ’57 and ’58 received the undated 6” x 12” orange and black plates. Then, in 1959, New Jersey started the black on straw base which lasted until 1979. Today, even though the size of license plates in all fifty states remains the same, the registrations vary from state to state. Some states have stickers with the county and year expiration in the corners of the plate; other states like Missouri have the validation sticker right down the center of the plate. Over the last several years, interest from different nonprofits and special-interest causes have risen to have a license plate promoting and supporting their causes. A portion of the registration fees go to supporting the groups, and ultimately market the cause. Even college boosters have worked with Department of Motor Vehicle offices to develop plates to fund alumni programs. Sometimes these make the most interesting collector license plates. Collectors often look for license plates that reflect another aspect of their lives. For example, a volunteer firefight might

Automobile License Plate Collectors Association

The Automobile License Plate Collectors Association (ALPCA) was founded in 1954 by Dr. Cecil George, a psychoanalyst from Massachusetts, and Asa Colby, a postmaster from New Hampshire. Dr. George read an article in the “Boston Post” about Mr. Colby, who’d started collecting plates in 1949. Dr. George was intrigued by this because he too had started collecting plates a few years earlier and had no idea there were others with similar interests. Dr. George wrote to Mr. Colby offering to exchange some of his duplicate plates for some of his, and this started a friendship that endured until Mr. Colby passed in 1973. Their common interest spurred them into discovering if there were others with a similar passion. Mr. Colby placed advertisements in several automotive hobby magazines and stamp collecting periodicals, and shortly thereafter, their common passion grew into an organization which has risen to more than 11,500 members all over the world. The two held the first convention at Dr. George’s home, which attracted 17 like-minded individuals. Dr. George was assigned membership #1 and Mr. Colby took #2.  Today, ALPCA produces a full-color bi-monthly magazine filled with articles and pictures about license plates and the different aspects of license plate collecting to serve the some 3,000 active members. The club hosts a yearly national convention in different cities across the United States, and has 23 regions throughout the United States that hold local gatherings several times a year. The ALPCA has also spawned companion clubs in Europe and Australia. For more information on how to join, please visit the club website at GSM Garage Style Magazine Summer 2013


Gsm issue 21  
Gsm issue 21  

The magazine about garages.