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When the average American thinks of license plates, it’s often hour-long delays and lines at the DMV that come to mind. But what many people don’t know, is that vehicle registration is far more interesting than simply two pieces of metal and renewal tags. In fact, the best license plates have become a creative means of self-expression, symbols of state pride, personal interests and expensive collector’s items. Not to mention, they have an incredibly rich history that dates back to the turn of the 20th century.

When the vehicle boom took over America, there was no such thing as license plates, but as more drivers took to the roads and accidents increased, there were little means of enforcing personal accountability. Thanks to the state of New York, registration plates became mandatory. Initially, there was no such thing as a random string of numbers and letters, instead, drivers used their first and last initials. But as one might guess, this system began to fail. For a simple reason — there were just too many people with the same initials. Hence, the modern license plate.

Today, we have everything from standard-issue plates and specialty designs to coveted retro plates and personalized sayings that will make you tailgate long enough to decipher their meanings. So, before digital license plates take over — yes, it’s on the horizon — we’re taking a moment to revel in the best license plates throughout history. Using our guide, you can take a trip back in time to see where we’ve come from and where we’re headed to next. So, next time you’re on the road, visiting an antique store or you’ve stumbled across a bar with license plates plastered on the walls, keep your eyes peeled. You never know what gems you might stumble across!

history of state license plates

License Plate History: A Timeline

1901: New York requires the first license plates.
1903: Massachusetts is the first to issue uniform, enamel-on-iron license plates.
1910: Metal plates begin to replace other materials like leather, ceramic, canvas, and wood.
1920: Massachusetts produces its own license plates at Charlestown State Prison.
1931: Pennsylvania pioneers the vanity plate.
1933: The first slogan is adopted by the South Carolina plate — “The Iodine Products State.”
1948: Idaho plates have potato decals applied by hand and varnished.
1956: The 6 x 12-inch license plate becomes the national standard.
1957: The first handicapped license plates are issued in the state of Massachusetts.
1963: California begins to issue plates that last for the vehicle’s lifetime.
1987: Florida creates special license plates after the Challenger space shuttle tragedy.
1990’s: Digitally printed plates begin to replace embossed throughout the country.

License plates have come a long way from their humble beginnings. We no longer see year-to-year color changes, but new and creative designs are never lacking on the road. Maybe your style is more retro or it’s the state parks plates that speak to your inner road trip enthusiast. One thing is clear, license plates are one of our favorite forms of self-expression.

We look forward to seeing what designs are in store for us next year!