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1903 - The First License Plates Issued in the U.S.

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A picture of one of the earliest license plates, issued by Massachusetts in 1903.

A 1903 Massachusetts licence plate, one of the first license plates issued in the United States.

Picture courtesy of the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles.
License plates are required for every car in the United States these days, but when automobiles first started to appear on the road, there was no such thing as license plates. Who created license plates? What did the first one look like?

The Very First License Plate

Although New York was the first state to require automobiles have license plates (1901), these plates were made by individual owners (with the owner's initials) rather than state-issued plates.

The first state-issued license plates were issued in Massachusetts, beginning in 1903. The very first plate, featuring the number "1," was issued to Frederick Tudor. (One of his relatives still holds an active registration on the plate.)

What Did These First License Plates Look Like?

These early Massachusetts license plates were made of iron and covered in a porcelain enamel. The background was colored a cobalt blue and the number was in white. Along the top of the plate, also in white, were the words: "MASS. AUTOMOBILE REGISTER." The size of the plate was not constant; it grew wider as the plate number reached into the tens, hundreds, and thousands.

Massachusetts was the first to issue license plates, but other states soon followed. As automobiles began to crowd the roads, it was necessary for all states to find ways to start regulating cars, drivers, and traffic.

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