HomeCar CultureCommentaryToday is the license plate's birthday

Today is the license plate’s birthday


Some of the historic license plates at the Petersen museum | Larry Edsall
Some of the historic license plates at the Petersen museum | Larry Edsall

April 25 is the birthday of the automotive license plate in the United States.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, New York was the first state to require license plates on motor vehicles, beginning April 25, 1901.

At the time, the census bureau reports, there were fewer than 15,000 motor cars in the entire country. Today, there are nearly 250 million cars, trucks and buses in the country, and all of them wear license plates.

“Many automobile license plates proclaim glories of the issuing states; others spell out something dear to the drivers but indecipherable to anyone else,” the census bureau’s news release reports.

Regardless, it continues, “Those plates and the basic ones handed out by motor vehicle departments are requirements to drive on public roads.”

Oh, and if you want to decorate your plate — or plates, depending on the state in which you reside — the census bureau reports there are 38,000 auto parts and accessories stores that can sell you decorative license plate frames.

For more such trivia, you can visit www.census.gov.

To learn more about license plates, you can visit the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, which has an entire exhibition on the history of license plates. The Petersen’s exhibition opened late last year and runs through December 7.

The famous 1928 Massachusetts plate | Larry Edsall
The famous 1928 Massachusetts plate | Larry Edsall

The highlight of the Petersen’s exhibition is the 1928 Massachussets license plate, which many of that state’s residents blamed for the lousy fishing season that year.

It was in 1928 that the Massachusetts department of motor vehicles added a fish symbol to the state’s license plates, but positioned the fish so it was swimming away from the word “Mass.” After a poor season for fishermen and an anglers’ uproar, the person who designed that plate was fired and the following year the fish pointed toward the state’s name and the fishing industry prospered.

Such tales are shared in the “License Plates: Unlocking the Code” exhibit.

“There really is educational value to each plate in this display,” said Jeff Minard, a license plate historian who worked with the museum on the display. “At the same time, time, these unique pieces are displayed as art for everyone to enjoy.” 

Larry Edsall
Larry Edsall
A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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