Very Early California Leather & Mesh License Plate SOLD A1189

Fascinating artifact of the early days of motoring.

Price on request.


American Pre-State License Plates: 1901 – 1910

Our story begins in 1901 when the State of New York and the City of Cleveland, Ohio realized that it was time to begin requiring license plates for motorcars. The purpose was not to raise revenue – there weren’t enough autos on the road then to matter – but rather to get a grip on the speeders and reckless drivers of the day who were well known for frightening horses and otherwise generally running amuck on city streets. The thought was that if autos were tagged with a big number plate, the ‘scorchers’ could be identified and held accountable for their recklessness. It worked!

In the first decade of the century, the most common means of making a license was through the local harness shop. And that’s where leather comes into the picture. Tack shops could see that their trade – and business – was ending rapidly as the automobile began replacing the horse and buggy. Demand for saddles, buggy whips and other horse-related goods was disappearing, so businesses looked to the automobile trade. Seats and tops were obvious goods they could provide, and so were registration plates.

The first individual to realize that auto tags could be made of leather is long lost to history – but it was a good choice. Leather was supple and pliable, would not easily rip or tear, and could be drilled, stitched and punctured by the rivets used to secure the registration numbers. It was a natural, and by the middle of the decade house-numbers-on-leather became the dominant materials for making license plates.

Cleveland was the “first” city to require car owners to make and display license plates;
New York was the “first” state. In the former, numbers were issued to automobiles in sequential order from 1901 thru the middle of 1908. New York State also began that same year, but kept the owner-made system going through 1910 – issuing over 105,000 individual registration numbers before beginning official state-provided plates late in that year