The Buyable Past

PrintPrintEmailEmailBefore back-seat video screens, countless children amused themselves on road trips by looking at license plates, thrilled to spot their initials, birthdates, or examples from distant states. Thousands of adult collectors share that enthusiasm.

Plates have been around since New York mandated automobile licensing in 1901. Car owners then cobbled together their own, often attaching metal numbers designed for house fronts to leather backings. Early state-issued markers tended to have enameled porcelain surfaces, and by World War I plates that weighed as much as a pound were being stamped from heavy steel.

When steel conservation took hold during World War II, multi-year plates designed to accept small metal date tabs appeared, and some states turned to materials like heavy cardboard or wood-pulp derivatives. Illinois based a substance on homegrown soybeans—goats reportedly loved them—and Louisiana derived one from sugarcane. After the war aluminum was briefly in vogue, but steel ultimately prevailed.

In 1917 Arizona branded its plate with a steer’s head to promote beef sales. Idaho surrounded numbers with a silhouetted potato in 1928, and in 1948 it issued plates picturing a buttered baked potato. The state’s current slogan, “Famous Potatoes,” has been used for 50 years. Iowa called itself the Corn State from 1953 to 1955, and Nebraska was the Beef State between 1956 and 1965.

The centennial of Alaska’s purchase from Russia is observed with indigenous art.
 
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Both New York and California used license plates to lure people to competing 1939 world’s fairs, and in 1941 New Mexico began inviting tourists to the “Land of Enchantment.” The Native American Zia Pueblo sun sign that complements the phrase has shone for eight decades now. Wyoming’s quintessentially Western bronco rider has remained in the saddle nearly as long; he mounted up in 1936. “These symbols have great popular appeal,” says Jeff Minard, a leading authority on license plates. “Certain state administrations have wanted to drop them over the years, but it has always resulted in a howl of protest.” Older markers with bold graphic motifs, including South Carolina’s 1926–27 palmetto tree and the peach that Georgia featured in 1941, are particularly popular with collectors.

A California governor’s plate.
 
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People have always nailed their old markers up in barns and garages, but collectors didn’t get organized until 1954, when a Massachusetts psychologist founded the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association. Some collections now include thousands of plates, in part because recent examples cost as little as $5 and vintage pieces from the fifties or earlier are often just a bit higher, perhaps $25. The cost curve gets much steeper at the high end, though, and a few especially rare plates have reached the $10,000 range. Those from the year a state first issued them can be expensive if the state was then sparsely populated and the run was relatively small. Collectors also favor low-number plates, which are most desirable when they have no accompanying letters, and tags with the initials of prominent original owners.