Automobiles as we more or less know them got their start in the late 1800s. As you might imagine, there were any number of transportation contraptions invented before Karl Benz introduced his Benz-Patent Motorwagen in 1886, but his is considered the first basic motor car. By 1900, there were something on the order of 8,000 automobiles in the U.S. of A. This proliferation of large metal things running all over the countryside called for a means of identification. In New York, in 1901, a law was passed that all autos had to be labeled with the owner’s initials in a prominent place in the rear of the car. The letters had to be at least three inches high, but the manner in which they were displayed was entirely up to the owner. A placard could be made of metal, wood, leather or whatever material would work. One could even just paint the letters on the car itself. This system served for a while, but as the popularity of autos rose and prices fell, there were too many owners with the same initials, and so too much duplication. Only three years later, the law would be updated to a new system whereby the state would issue each car a unique number. It was still up to the driver to make his own “plate,” utilizing whatever colors, fonts or styles he pleased. In that same year, Massachusetts began a practice that we carry on to this day, the issuance of standardized state-produced license plates.
Plates initially featured just a number, but eventually, those numbers grew too large, so schemes to extend the series were devised. Adding letters allowed agencies to get 26 times more plates out of any numbering system. Multiple letters, of course, expanded the possibilities even further. License plates were dispensed by all the many states, and there were a great number of systems leading to a wide variety of sizes. Moving to another state might require a driver to drill a new set of holes in his bumper. Eventually, a national standard of 6″x12″ came into being, and while the licenses of different states lost some of their individuality by size, most were easily recognized. Colors and letter/number systems gave clues from a distance, but all carried their state’s name, and most showed a short phrase linked to their home. “Famous Potatoes,” “Live Free or Die,” “10,000 Lakes,” “Grand Canyon State,” “Land of Lincoln”—a little lesson in history or geography came along with the recognition of a state’s plate.
Some had embossed symbols representative of their region. Texas plates long featured a lone star separating some of the letters and numbers, and later a small raised map of the state came into use. Alaska showed its state flag. Pennsylvania embossed both a Liberty Bell and a keystone, symbols of its history. The cars of Wyoming have long featured a cowboy on a bucking bronco in bas-relief. Nebraska outlined its state border, as did Pennsylvania (it helps to have a state shaped like a license plate), and Colorado featured a Rocky Mountain ridgeline. All these designs were actually pressed into the metal, back when plates were a more simple utilitarian element of a car’s bumper.
In recent decades, license plates have become not only the quick identifier of a given state but miniature works of art depicting innumerable aspects of which a state is proud. Many feature scenes iconic of the state, whether farmland, mountain wilderness, or desert vista. Many no longer have the 3-D surface of a stamped plate but are completely flat, and some are made with a reflective surface to act as a safety feature. Standard plates are sometimes still plain (looking at you, California, with those boring, white, general-issue plates) but it seems every state offers options for more expensive plate designs commemorating nearly any worthy cause or institution you can think of. California alone has more than ten designs currently available, and others still on the Golden State’s roads include a collection of former plate designs corroding away on old vehicles. Where once the origin of a car could be instantly recognized by its singular plate, it would take a thick catalog (or a long web page) to illustrate all the many styles and statements now gracing the bumpers of cars nationwide.