A Website for Porcelain License Plate Collectors & Enthusiasts
40 Years of Porcelain License Plates
In the earliest days of motoring, automobile ownership was a mark of distinction
and wealth.  In the latter half of the nineteenth century, automobiles were largely
still a flight of fancy obsessed over by entrepreneurs and scientists, but they
quickly became a reality.  By the turn of the century, commercially manufactured
vehicles were now available, but they remained a luxury item that few could
afford.  Bought by the adventurous gentry, automobiles were more for sport than
transportation.  The infrastructure was not yet set up, roads remained unpaved,
and industries set up to service and repair vehicles were in their infancy.  In
these early years, vehicles were a part of an owner’s very identity, and everyone
in town knew who owned which cars.  

However, the motoring elite quickly developed a reputation nationwide for
recklessness and disregard for the safety of others.  Newspapers in the first
decade of the 20th century were filled with reports of injuries and deaths caused
by speeding drivers.  Horses were spooked, riders were thrown, and pedestrians
were run down - and the drivers usually got away with it.  The idea of placing
license plates on cars grew from this brewing resentment towards the
"automobilists," as they were known.  Cities and states across the country were
soon passing laws regulating the speed of automobiles, the equipment they were
required to carry, the roads they were and weren't allowed to use, etc.  And to
ensure that these new laws were not ignored - cars began to be licensed and

Of course, finicky vehicle owners were not at all pleased with the crusade against
them and their "devil wagons" as the press frequently labeled automobiles.  
Placing a license number on a car was thought to be a disfigurement - a lowbrow
gesture which would reduce the appearance of the vehicle and make it look like
a common taxi.  However, as more and more automobiles filled the streets of
America, it was clear that the automobilists were fighting a losing battle and their
vehicles would soon be regulated, licensed, and tagged in spite of their
objections.  At first, the numbers placed on cars were crude, sometimes written
right on the vehicle, although more commonly fashioned by the owner out of
metal, leather, or wood.  Department stores began to offer house numbers and
leather or metal pads.  

The 1900s

Of course, cities, counties, and states quickly realized that the automobile was
here to stay and wanted a piece of the revenue, and the era of the homemade
plate soon gave way to standardized official issues.  This change began in New
England in 1903, when Massachusetts issued its first  porcelain license plates to
vehicle registrants with an attractive, undated plate designed to be used for the
next five years.  Porcelain manufacturing for signs and kitchenware had been
around since the middle of the previous century, so the application to license
plates was not as much of a stretch as one might at first think.  Rather than being
an expensive high-class accessory befitting the motoring elite, porcelain license
plates were actually a very logical choice.  Effective metal stamping was still a
decade away and porcelain manufacturing had been perfected and required no
skilled labor.  With this first Massachusetts plate, the era of the porcelain license
plates had begun.  That same year, the city of Philadelphia issued a dated
porcelain plate – the earliest dated porcelain ever made.

The state and city issuance of license plates caught on, and porcelain continued
to be the material of choice.  It quickly spread throughout the Northeast.  By 1905,
every state in New England had begun issuing porcelain plates.  A number of
cities jumped on the bandwagon as well in this first decade of the century.  St.
Louis and St. Louis County began issuing porcelain plates in 1904 and 1906,
respectively.  Philadelphia continued issuing porcelains through 1906, at which
time the state of Pennsylvania took over with their own porcelain issues.  In 1906,
the state of Virginia also issued an undated porcelain plate.  West Virginia began
issuing porcelains in 1907, as did the cities of Scranton, PA; Louisville, KY; and
Columbus, OH.  Pittsburgh, PA and Warren, OH followed suit in 1908, as did the
state of Ohio which issued an undated multi-year plate.  Although we are
uncertain of whether it is a vehicle license, a porcelain Chicago “roofer” plate
dated 1908 also exists.  A long series of vendor, huckster, cartman, peddler,
scavenger, and milk licenses believed to have been issued by the city of
Rochester, NY also began in at least 1907.  And although undated, porcelain
plates from both Providence, RI and Lorain, OH are also believed to have been
issued in the first decade of the century.

Delaware caught the porcelain bug in 1909 with the first of 7 annual dated issues
from the state, and although New Jersey had begun issuing plates in 1908, 1909
was the first year they issued porcelains.  Plates from jurisdictions such as
Sewickley, PA; Catlettsburg and Newport, KY; and the first of a run of at least 6
annual issues from Wheeling, WV are also known from 1909.  In fact, 1909 was a
banner year in the issuance of porcelains.  Ottawa, KS; Little Rock and Fort Smith,
AR; and Birmingham, Mobile and Montgomery, AL all launched their respective
states into the porcelain era in 1909.  The trend of issuing porcelain plates had
reached the Deep South and would soon spread Westward.  By the end of 1909,
twelve states were issuing porcelain license plates, and some twenty cities and
counties had experimented with porcelains as well.  The coming decade would
see the era of porcelain license plates rise sharply, reach it’s peak, and decline
to a mere shadow of its former self.  

The 1910s

The dawn of the second decade of the 20th Century saw numerous cities,
counties, and states taking up the trend of issuing porcelain license plates to
vehicle registrants.  That year, the states of Kentucky, Michigan and Maryland
began their runs of state-issued plates.  In Michigan and Kentucky, all varieties of
plates were porcelain, while in Maryland, only the dealer plates were.  Cities
jumping on the porcelain bandwagon in 1910 included Hailey, ID; Valley City, ND;
Tulsa, OK; Jacksonville, FL; and Moundsville, WV.  With the exception of the
Moundsville plate, interestingly, each of these cities pioneered their respective
state’s experimentation with porcelain plates.  Again with the exception of the
Moundsville, none of the states from which these plates were issued ever took
up the task of issuing porcelain license plates themselves, instead leaving the
issuance of such plates up to individual cities.  Pine Bluff, AR, as well as
Covington, Lexington and Paducah, KY also began issuing porcelains in 1910.

This decade also seems to have brought about the proliferation of porcelain non-
passenger varieties as well.  In Michigan, porcelains were issued to passenger
vehicles, manufacturers, motorcycles, and motorcycle manufacturers in 1910.  
After four years of porcelain plates, both Pennsylvania and Virginia also
introduced non-passenger porcelains in 1910 with dealer issues.  That same year,
the state of Connecticut introduced livery porcelains, while the city of New Britain
began issuing porcelain plates to the city’s milk dealers.  But in spite of this
obvious rise in the issuance and varied usage of porcelain license plates, there
was still not a single state West of the Mississippi that was issuing porcelains of
its own in 1910.

The demand for affordable automobiles was growing with each passing year as
the utility of the automobile was becoming increasingly apparent.  In 1913 Henry
Ford introduced the assembly line to automobile manufacturing and changed
motoring forever.  No longer was automobile ownership the elite symbol it once
was, as more and more Americans found ways to afford cars which were now
more quickly and cheaply manufactured.  Before long, many states would
abandon their issuance of porcelain plates in favor of more cheaply made flat or
embossed metal plates.  

But the porcelain era was not dead yet, and in fact, would reach new heights
between 1910 and 1915.  In fact, in that 6 year span, 60% of all the state-issued
passenger porcelains ever produced were issued.  1911 saw officially-issued
porcelain license plates spread North to Canada, where the Provinces of Ontario,
Manitoba, and New Brunswick all began their official runs with porcelain plates.  
In the U.S., the state of Arkansas also chose porcelain as the material for its first
state-issued license plate.  The very first porcelain plates from neighboring
Louisiana also appeared in 1911 as the cities of Alexandria and Monroe began
issuing porcelains.  Other cities first issuing plates in 1911 include University City
and Kansas City, MO, as well as Cordell, OK.  The earliest dated Mississippi plate
is also a porcelain from 1911, although it is unclear whether this is a pre-state,
some sort of prototype, or perhaps even the state’s first issue.  Meanwhile, every
state that had begun issuing porcelain plates at any time prior to this was still
issuing porcelains.  

In 1912, cities in Alabama ceased the issuance of porcelain plates and the state
took over with its first of four annual issues.  This was also the single year the
state of New York experimented with porcelains, with a large, undated red &
white plate.  In Canada, both Alberta and Saskatchewan began their Provincial
runs with dated 1912 plates.  In Kansas, the cities of Kansas City and Wichita each
issued their first porcelains in 1912 as well, as did New Orleans, LA; Dayton, OH;
Dewey, OK; Independence, MO; and Morgantown, WV.  When looking at only
official state issued porcelain passenger plates, 1913 was the single peak year in
the history of porcelain plates.  In this year, 19 different states were issuing
porcelain plates.  These states were still clustered in the Northeast, but reached
into the Deep South states of Alabama and Arkansas and as far west as Colorado.  
In fact, Colorado’s first-issue 1913 plate made it the first state West of Minnesota
to officially issue porcelains.  Indiana and North Carolina also kicked off their
respective state runs with porcelain plates in 1913.  Cities joining the porcelain
fray in 1913 included Caney, KS; St. Joseph, MO; Nowata, OK; and Lima, OH.  This
was also the first year of relatively long runs of plates from both Manchester,
New Hampshire and Hamilton, Ontario.  

1914 & 1915 would also see substantial, wide-spread use of porcelain plates, but
technically, the decline had already begun.  1914 saw porcelain plates finally
reach the West coast as the state of California began issuing plates.  Further
North, Seattle, Washington began issuing porcelain plates to commercial vehicles
that same year.  1914 also saw the first issuance of porcelains from places as
diverse as Stamford, CT; Worcester, MA; Rochester, NY; Bangor, PA; Memphis,
TN; Clifton Forge, VA; and the Oklahoma cities of Bigheart, Chickasha, Okmulgee,
and Shawnee.  The city of Shreveport, LA and the Louisiana Parishes of St. John
and St. Mary also issued their first and only known porcelains in 1914.

Three states dropped out of the official state-issued porcelain license plate
business in 1914 and two more in 1915.  By 1915, in fact, the numbers had
dropped to 1910 levels and 1916 would see a precipitous drop even further as all
but six states abandoned the use of official state porcelains.  In this last of the
peak years from 1910-1915, however, porcelains remained popular.  Although no
new states or provinces adopted porcelains that year, cities and counties across
North America continued to utilize porcelain.  In fact, porcelain jumped more than
2,000 miles to the West as the Hawaiian counties of Hawaii and Honolulu both
began issuing porcelains.  Cities such as Ponchatoula, LA; Clinton, MA; Fairmont,
WV; and both Collinsville and Sapulpa in Oklahoma also issued their first
porcelains this year.  By the end of 1915, 90% of all the state issued porcelains
ever produced had been made.  

In 1916, 9 states that had been issuing porcelain plates the year before ceased
doing so.  Interestingly, however, one state that had never before experimented
with porcelains took a shot with a single issue in 1916.  This was the state of
Wyoming which decided the next year to go back to embossed metal plates.  For
the next 7 years, the state issuance of porcelain license plates dwindled to a
mere trickle before ending altogether.  In 1917, North Carolina abandoned
porcelain for embossed metal.  In 1918, Rhode Island issued its first non-
porcelain plate in 14 years.  And in 1919, the New England states were finally
porcelain-free as New Hampshire became the last hold-out to switch to metal.  

The 1920s

The dawn of the 1920s saw two last-ditch efforts to adopt porcelain in the West,
as the states of New Mexico and Washington experimented with the material.  But
like Wyoming four years earlier, one year was enough for Washington, and the
state was back to embossed metal by 1921.  New Mexico, however, maintained its
confidence in porcelain, issuing plates for four years.  The sole torch bearer for
state-issued porcelains once Washington dropped out, New Mexico carried on
the tradition through 1923 when they finally abandoned porcelain for good.  The
era of the state-issued porcelain license plate was now over.

City and county issued porcelains were changing as well.  The time when local
plates would adorn all of the passenger vehicles in a given city, town, or county
had now passed.  Alexandria, Louisiana’s long run of 10 annual issues ceased in
1920.  Kansas City, Missouri’s last porcelain plates for automobiles and
motorcycles also came in 1920.  And that same year, the final porcelains were
issued by Memphis, Tennessee before the city switched to metal plates.  Bisbee,
Arizona’s two year run of porcelains ended the following year in 1921, the same
year that Honolulu issued a porcelain motorcycle plate, marking the last Hawaiian
porcelain of any kind.  Other porcelain runs were ending as well.  Manchester,
New Hampshire’s 10-year stretch of annual Garbage plates stopped in 1922.  The
Teamsters licenses issued by Bangor, Pennsylvania since 1914 finally ceased in
1923.  And North Carolina’s rich tradition of city and county issued plates came to
a virtual standstill in 1926.  However, porcelain license plates would manage to
hang on for a while longer with a much reduced selection of local issues which
were becoming more and more specialized.   

Among the porcelains introduced in the 1920s were Junkman plates from
Stamford, Connecticut; Motor Bus plates from Fall River, Massachusetts; and
Licensed Trucking plates from Providence, Rhode Island.  Clearly, the use of
porcelain for license plates was fast becoming a thing of the past.  As the decade
wore on, fewer and fewer porcelain license plates would be used.  

The 1930s

While there were literally hundreds of different varieties of porcelain license
plates being issued by states, provinces, cities, and counties throughout the U.S.
and Canada in 1915, just 15 years later in 1930, I can only document a grand total
of four porcelain license plates of any kind.  Only a few cities were clinging to
porcelain at this late stage, with runs continuing into the 1930s from Worcester,
MA; Wilson, NC; and Providence, RI.  The group of plates thought by most to be
from Rochester, NY also continued the issuance of Milk Licenses into the 1930s.  
The only two cities known to have introduced any type of porcelain license plate
during this decade were Sacramento, California, which began issuing Wholesale
Produce Dealer plates in 1935, and Schenectady, New York which began the
issuance of Milk Licenses mid-year.  In 1937, the 20+ year run of porcelain plates
privately issued to motorists using the Long Island Motor Parkway finally came to
an end, and the end to porcelain license plates altogether was only 10 years off.

The 1940s

The only city-issued porcelain license plates in use in the 1940s were Produce
Dealer and Wood & Coal Dealer plates from Sacramento, CA; Milk Permit plates
from Bristol, CT; and Licensed Trucking and Hackney Carriage plates from
Providence, RI – none of which appear to have continued past 1942.  With the
demise of the Providence plates that year, New England’s uninterrupted 40-year
run of porcelain license plates dating back to 1903 finally came to and end.  
Beyond these few city issues, Delaware brought porcelain plates back to the
state for the first time since 1915.  Issued from 1942 through 1947, these were
multi-year base plates designed to be revalidated annually with metal date tabs.  
With the re-introduction of Delaware porcelains, this was the first time a state or
provincially issued porcelain license plate had been used since 1923.  Surely we
will find odd porcelains from the 1940s here and there as time goes on, such as
the toppers used by vehicles at the West Point military academy from the mid
1930s until at least 1940, but by the end of World War II, the death knell for
porcelain license plates had been sounded.  After 40 years, porcelain had
become a thing of the past.    
1903 - 1942