The First License Plates in U.S. History

Full Frame Shot Of License Plates
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License plates, also known as vehicle registration plates, are required for every car in the United States these days, but when automobiles first started to appear on the road, there was no such thing! So who created license plates? What did the first one look like? Why and when were they first introduced? For these answers, look no further than the turn of the 20th century in the Northeastern United States. 

The Very First License Plate

Although New York was the first state to require automobiles have license plates in 1901, these plates were made by individual owners (with the owner's initials) rather than being issued by state agencies as they are in modern times. The very first license plates were typically handcrafted on leather or metal (iron) and were meant to denote ownership via the initials. 

It wasn't until two years later, in 1903, that the first state-issued license plates were distributed in Massachusetts. The very first plate, featuring just the number "1," was issued to Frederick Tudor, who was working with the highway commission (and the son of the "Ice King" Frederic Tudor). One of his relatives still holds an active registration on the 1 plate.

What Did the First License Plates Look Like?

These early Massachusetts license plates were made of iron and covered in porcelain enamel. The background was colored a cobalt blue and the number was in white. Along the top of the plate, also in white, were the words: "MASS. AUTOMOBILE REGISTER." The size of the plate was not constant; it grew wider as the plate number reached into the tens, hundreds, and thousands.

Massachusetts was the first to issue license plates, but other states soon followed. As automobiles began to crowd the roads, it was necessary for all states to find ways to start regulating cars, drivers, and traffic. By 1918, all states in the United States had begun issuing their own vehicle registration plates. 

Who Issues License Plates Now?

In the U.S., vehicle registration plates are issued solely by the states' Departments of Motor Vehicles. The only time a federal government agency issues these plates is for their federal vehicle fleet or for cars owned by foreign diplomats. Notably, some Indigenous groups in America also issue their own registrations to members, but many states now offer a special registration for them. 

Annually Updating License Plate Registrations

Although the first license plates were meant to be semi-permanent, by the 1920s, states had begun mandating renewal for personal vehicle registration. At this time, individual states began experimenting with different methods for creating the plates. The front would typically contain registration numbers in large, centered digits while smaller lettering on one side dictated the abbreviated state name and a two- or four-digit year the registration was valid during. By 1920, citizens were required to obtain new plates from the state each year. Oftentimes these would vary in color year to year to make it easier for police to identify expired registrations. 

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Your Citation
Rosenberg, Jennifer. "The First License Plates in U.S. History." ThoughtCo, Sep. 15, 2020, Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2020, September 15). The First License Plates in U.S. History. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Jennifer. "The First License Plates in U.S. History." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).