The Lost History Of License Plates

If they were saved at all, license plates used to be decorations that were hung from garage rafters. Nearly all of the old ones would have disappeared, if not for the fact that some people just couldn’t bear to toss perfectly good steel or aluminum into the trash. Those artifacts inspired Jeff Minard and about 3000 members of the American License Plate Collectors Association, which actually exists. Minard, 66, formerly a coin and stamp collector, has long implored his relatives and friends to save their plates. The efforts have resulted in “License Plates: Unlocking the Code,” an exhibition of 220 domestic and international license plates, which runs through December 7 at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. License plates from every state and 43 countries are represented at the Peterson museum's exhibition.

License Plates: A Time Line

1901: First license plate is issued, in New York.

1903: Massachusetts creates uniform, enamel-on-iron license plates.

Late 1910s: Metal plates supersede other materials such as leather, ceramic, canvas, and wood.

1920: Massachusetts produces its own license plates at Charlestown State Prison.

1931: Pennsylvania pioneers the vanity plate.

1933: South Carolina adopts an early plate slogan: the Iodine Products State.

1948: Idaho plates have potato decals applied by hand and varnished.

1956: License plates are standardized nationwide to six by twelve inches.

1957: Massachusetts issues its first handicapped license plates for those who have lost the use of a limb and, oddly, the legally blind.

1963: California reissues yearly license plates for the last time. Now, the original lasts for the vehicle’s lifetime.

1987: Florida observes the Challenger space-shuttle tragedy with special license plates.

Mid-1990s: Led by New York, Colorado, and Iowa, the move away from embossed plates is on, and digitally printed plates become common.

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