The Long Strange History of License Plates in the U.S.

By: Talon Homer  | 
Last bug vanity plate
This New Hampshire vanity license plate reads "Last Bug," fitting for the back of a VW "bug." Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Back in 1900, there were just 4,192 motor vehicles in the U.S. But every year, the number of cars was skyrocketing (by 1908, it would reach 63,500). As automobiles grew in popularity, eventually replacing the horse and buggy, state governments needed a way to keep tabs on vehicles. The simple license plate was the solution, with a few letters and numbers stamped into a thin metal sheet to designate a car to its owner.

"New York became the first state to require owners to register their motor vehicles with the state," says Ian Lang, senior car advice editor at via email. "The New York legislature required vehicle registration on April 25, 1901, followed by California later that year. New York's first plates were homemade, bearing only the owner's initials without any numbers. It was Massachusetts that actually issued its first license plates in 1903."


These were the first instances of car registration in the U.S., but France beat them to the punch, with motor vehicle tags issued as early as 1893. In fact, all the way back in 1783, King Louis XVI mandated that carriage drivers in Paris have metal plates with their names and addresses fixed on their carriages.

"By 1918, license plates had been issued by all 48 contiguous states," says Lang. These plates were made out of either leather or metal and were not very standardized from state to state. "It was common for early plates to have just the state's name or abbreviation, a registration number, and, more often than not, the year."

girl, 1920s car
This California car from the early 1920s is equipped with a license plate.
American Stock/Getty Images

Initially, license plates were issued to last the life of the vehicle, says Lang, but by the 1920s, registration renewal became a thing. "During this time, states began experimenting with different methods of creating license plates. Typically, the front of the registration card [plate] would have the registration number in large, centered numbers while the back would have the abbreviated name of the state and a two- or four-digit year of validity."

Around the 1950s, license plate size and materials began to be standardized to what we see today. After 1956, all American, as well as Canadian plates measured exactly 6 by 12 inches (15 by 30 centimeters). In 1954, the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) was also introduced as a reliable method of tying registration documents to a particular car.


What Do License Plate Numbers Mean?

U.S. states use many different conventions when it comes to assigning plate numbers. Many states do it randomly. Others, like Idaho, designate numbers and letters based on the county where the plates are issued. Each state offers designs with local slogans or symbols serving as the backdrop.

"Every plate has a story to tell, whether it is a state symbol or one that depicts a famous landmark or historical figure," says Lang. Some states require tags at both the front and rear of the vehicle, while others use only the rear plate. (Wikipedia keeps an extensive list of what license plates look like in each state and the naming conventions.)


There are also plenty of custom "vanity plate" options that allow drivers to pick their own characters that create words or phrases as long as they don't spell out profanity. "The majority of passenger vehicles today have license plates with six or seven characters, but some states allow vanity plates with a maximum of eight characters. In addition, most states do not allow letters I, O, and Q because they are too easily confused with 0 and 1," says Lang. The digits and letters are usually embossed and painted, although some states have moved toward completely flat metal plates.

Yes, Prisoners Still Make License Plates in the U.S.

For many decades, the DMV system has used prison labor to meet the constant demand for new license plates. "It is estimated that 80 percent of license plates in the United States are produced in prisons. Several of those prisons manufacture plates for multiple states, says Lang. "In prisons, the actual metal plates are stamped, then the plastic sheeting is applied."

For instance, all of California's plates are cut and stamped out of aluminum in a facility at Folsom State Penitentiary. The plant uses around 120 inmates to churn out over 45,000 license plates per day, consuming 15,000 pounds (6,800 kilograms) of sheet metal in the process. Many advocacy groups, including the ACLU, have decried the use of prison labor in the U.S. After all, inmates frequently make less than $1 per hour on the job.


Others argue that the skills inmates learn in the system are valuable enough on their own and will help them hold on to jobs in the outside world when they are released. Indeed, working in the license plate factory is often a highly sought-after job in prisons, one open only to those with good behavior records.


License Plates Have a Digital Future

The majority of license plates issued to date have been hunks of lifeless, unchanging metal, but a recent development has been the introduction of electronic plates. California, Arizona, Michigan and Texas have all jumped on the bandwagon, offering digital registration in addition to the old metal stuff.

This new variety is a small flat panel screen, roughly the same size as a traditional plate. It can either be hardwired into a vehicle's electrical system or supplied with an internal battery that lasts about five years.


digital plate
An example of a digital plate in California, where they are currently legal.

Reviver, the company responsible for these digital plates, says they are more convenient than the traditional plate. You can simply update vehicle registration online, and see the change reflected on the digital plate screen. However, this comes at a $19.95 subscription charge per month (or $215.40 for four years), in addition to the fees charged by states for vehicle registration. If you want the plate hardwired, that requires an extra installation cost.

Since you can renew your metal tag online for less money, it's likely that digital tags may hold more appeal for commercial enterprises that have to keep track of several vehicles at one time. Businesses could also monitor locations and mileage on their fleet with these plates. Even if digital plates take off with consumers, you'll probably be seeing the old pieces of stamped aluminum on American roads for many years to come.