Today in History: New York Becomes the First State to Require License Plates

Today in History: New York Becomes the First State to Require License Plates

by M.C. Millman

In the early 1900s, the rising popularity of vehicles made it harder to identify them on the streets, giving rise to the need for license plates.

On April 25, 1901, Benjamin Odell Jr., New York Governor, signed a bill requiring automobile and motorcycle license plates. The law stated that owners had to put "the separate initials of the owner's name placed upon the back thereof in a conspicuous place, the letters forming such initials to be at least three inches in height."

Strangely, New York did not issue license plates to drivers. Vehicle owners were required to make their own using various materials. According to AAA, motorists used metal, wood, or leather; some even painted letters directly onto their vehicles from 1901-1909. 

In 1903, Massachusetts provided the first state-issued license plates to residents. The AAA describes Massachusetts plates as cobalt blue and made of iron covered with porcelain enamel. The first issued plate was a number "1" given to Frederick Tudor, a worker for the highway commission. A member of Frederick's family still has this active registration. 

New York followed suit seven years later, in 1910, and began issuing license plates for New York's vehicles. 

According to the DMV, all 48 contiguous United States were issuing license plates by 1918.

In 1957, the United States set the standardized license plate size to 12 by 6 inches. Before this point, many shapes were used, like oval, square, round, and triangular. According to the DMV,  Kansas, and Tennessee cut their plates to match the shape of the state itself.

Idaho was the first state to print a slogan on its license plate in 1928. After Idaho stamped "Idaho Potatoes" on all of its license plates, other states followed suit. New York's slogan, "Excelsior," was voted in by New Yorkers and replaced the "Empire State" slogan in 2020. 

Today's New York license plate is a scenic, all-encompassing style with a white background and blue lettering depicting famous New York images of Niagara Falls, the Adirondack mountains, the Statue of Liberty, the Manhattan skyline, and a lighthouse along the bottom with "Excelsior" written in gold below the license plate number.

The new plates have rapidly overtaken the old-styled Empire Gold plates on the streets of New York as new vehicle registrations continue apace in New York. 

Excelsior - another new style in a long series of historical changes to New York license plates.

Photo Credit: Flickr

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