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©2019 by Eric N. Tanner
Cities had the authority to pass ordinances requiring automobile registration until the first state law took effect on January 1, 1909. Cleveland was the first to begin registering automobiles in 1902, and more cities joined each year. Motorcycles were not covered under state law until 1914, so city ordinances continued to provide for motor registration on a local basis for five additional years (1909-13).
Although the city of Akron had an automobile speed ordinance prior to 1903, an amended ordinance was passed on June 15, 1903, requiring a $1 fee and a number, probably in aluminum figures, issued by the Mayor. Issuance of numbers began almost immediately; 24 were issued as of June 30, the day before the mandatory enforcement date, and #13 had been issued. The Akron Beacon Journal reported on Wednesday, July 1, 1903, "With 39 registrations the automobile ordinance, requiring registration of all horseless vehicles and the carrying of a four-inch number at the rear of every machine, went into effect Wednesday morning." Another article two days later reported that 46 licenses had been issued.
It is believed that an ordinance requiring the licensing and numbering of motorcycles was passed as early as December 2, 1907, according to references found in a later ordinance. The Akron Beacon Journal reported on May 24, 1909, that "H.C. Horn, 37 South High street, postponed the matter of getting a license for his new motor cycle and had to pay out the biggest part of a $5 bill in fines and costs..." Another article on July 2, 1910, had the headline "MAYOR BILL TAKES OUT CYCLE NUMBER". This story went on to say that "Saturday morning, Mayor Sawyer pulled out of his pocket $1. 'Here,', he said to Clerk Barton, 'take this and give me a number for my motorcycle.' His number will be 'S. 8'..."
Ordinance #3204, passed April 22, 1912, and published in the Akron Beacon Journal on April 29 and May 6, amended and repealed the analogous sections in the Revised Ordinances of the city of Akron passed on December 2, 1907. Motorcycle owners were to register their vehicles with the Mayor and pay a $1 fee. The mayor issued numbers, in aluminum figures 4" high and 2 1/4" inches wide, to be placed by the owner on the rear of the machine in a horizontal line on a dark background, spaced 1 1/2" apart.
Whereas previously, licenses had been perpetual, with this new ordinance, all licenses were to expire on January 1 annually. Licenses issued in 1911 or earlier would become null and void immediately, while licenses issued in 1912 before passage of the ordinance would be valid until January 1, 1913. Licenses issued in December of each year would be extended to the second January 1st following. It appears that there were no changes to the fee or the style or method of issuance of numbers.
A final article in the same newspaper on June 5, 1912, states that "About 300 motorcycle licenses have been issued during the last few days by William Owen, city purchasing agent, and more are coming in every day. It is believed that there are about 450 machines in the city..."
An article in The Horseless Age on January 17, 1906, states: "Statistics show that eighty-nine licenses for automobiles were issued at Canton, Ohio, during the year 1905." An undated, unmarked leather plate #108 has been reported and is believed to be from about 1905.
Ordinance #611, passed on January 28, 1901, listed speed limits only. A 1902 article in Water & Sewage Works, Volume 23, states that "The Cincinnati ordinance of January 28, 1901, is practically a reproduction for automobiles of the bicycle ordinance of August 17, 1896, and requires a lantern..." No license or registration was mentioned at this time. A second ordinance, #876, passed on June 30, 1902, dealt only with automobiles in the public parks.
Ordinance #1065, passed on April 8, 1903, repealed Ordinance #611 and required registration and plates. When the ordinance was introduced at the city council's March 2 meeting, it required the payment of an annual $3 license fee and "also a tag with numbers 4 inches tall to correspond with his license, which tag must be conspicuously attached to his machine and which will cost 50 cents per figure," according to The Horseless Age on March 14, 1903. Despite this report, it appears that initials may have replaced numbers in the final version that passed.
A December 1903 article in the Municipal Journal and Engineer states that "In Cincinnati, the licensing is similar to Cleveland, but the fee is $3 and 50 cents for each initial of the owner to be placed on the auto. The license must be renewed yearly at $3..." The Horseless Age reports on September 30, 1903, that "The city auditor of Cincinnati, Ohio, is after thirty-five automobilists who have failed to take out licenses." According to the Automobile Review on June 15, 1905, Cincinnati "is to have a new automobile ordinance." Rear plates "of dark leather" are to contain the word "Ohio" in a "perpendicular row" and include the year of issuance. Most of the present licenses expire on July 1. Interestingly, on the new plates, "numbers are substituted for initial letters of the owner." From these pieces of the puzzle, we can gather that the annual registration year was most likely July 1 to June 30, and that from mid-1903 through 1905, initials were required from the city at an average cost of $1.50 for 3 letters, to be placed on an owner-provided background.
Ordinance #1074, being considered in the June article above, was passed on September 18, 1905, and effective January 1, 1906, repealing the previous ordinance. This ordinance required owners to pay an annual $5 fee to the City Auditor and display an annual city-issued brass-on-black rear plate. The registration year was now January 1 to December 31. Non-residents having no other city or state license were allowed 48 hours before having to register, otherwise, they were exempted. #216 was issued on February 10, 1906. Known plates are listed in the table below.
1906 Brass on Black #61 - 545
1907 Brass on Black #12 - 732
1908 Silver on Green #12 - 844
Because the 1905 ordinance specified the plate colors as brass on black, it seems likely that a subsequent ordinance would have been needed before 1908 to allow for the new colors of silver on green. A San Antonio (TX) Light news article on June 21, 1907, mentions that a new ordinance is being prepared by the legislative committee of the Cincinnati Automobile Club, at the suggestion of the city council. We don't know the content of this proposed ordinance or whether it passed or not. But the fact remains that the 1908 plate series was not brass on black!
At some later date, Cincinnati got into the motorcycle licensing business. A 1913 motorcycle plate #326 is known, and a 1911 motorcycle plate has been reported.
Cleveland could be considered an early automobile manufacturing center, with the following companies in operation here during the pioneer era: Baker (1899-1903), Stearns (1899), White (1900-05) and Winton (1899-1903). Therefore, it's not surprising that this was the earliest city in Ohio to pass an automobile ordinance in 1902.
A 1902 article in Water & Sewage Works, Volume 23, states that "Cleveland requires numbered license tag costing $1...The date of the ordinance is May 19, 1902." According to The Horseless Age on June 25, 1902, "The Cleveland automobile ordinance, compelling owners of all automobiles in the city to equip their machines with numbers and to obtain licenses from the city clerk, became operative last week. The license clerk issued over forty licenses the first day." A Chicago Tribune news article on December 11, 1902, mentions that Cleveland has a rear plate requirement and that the metal steel-gray numbers are city-issued. In a Municipal Journal and Engineer article in December 1903, it is stated that "Clevelanders, owning autos, must register their machines with the city clerk for a $1 fee, and place aluminum figures four inches high on the rear of the machine." Non-residents were allowed one day only.
The October 1, 1902, issue of The Horseless Age reports that "There are now 417 owners in that city..." The Motor Way states on February 15, 1903, that "The city clerk's records show that 476 licenses have been issued to operators." #613 was issued by April 29, 1903. The Horseless Age of August 26, 1903, has this to report: "Up to July 25 the total number of automobile licenses issued in Cleveland, Ohio, was 919. This is an increase of 550 for the past twelve months." #1003 was issued by September 20, 1903. Motor Age gave the following update on January 1, 1905: "During 1904 the number of licenses issued by the city clerk of Cleveland, O., was 497, which brought $497 into the city treasury." As of September 1, 1904, 1,520 licenses had been issued. The Motor Way reports on May 11, 1905, that "April has been a record-breaker so far as the issuing of licenses for new automobiles in Cleveland, O., is concerned. During April, 131 new automobile licenses were issued. The previous high record was made in May, 1903, when 130 were issued." The Horseless Age August 2, 1905, issue reports that "Up to July 24, 2,277 licenses had been issued by the city of Cleveland for both pleasure and commercial automobiles."
The Horseless Age mentions in its April 25, 1906, issue that "The city clerk stopped issuing auto licenses on April 10, the last one being No. 2,526." This was undoubtedly the result of the passage of the 1906 state law on April 2, which prohibited local registration and would have taken effect on June 1. However, with this law declared invalid and eventually repealed, it seems evident that Cleveland city registration resumed after this interruption, based on known plates higher than #2526, although we don't know just when.
Undated, unmarked leather plates are known from #613 to #5985. An unusual metal dated 1907 plate #7 is known, but we have no real idea where it is from (photo in Archives). A later flat metal plate #1222, undoubtedly a motorcycle issue, is known in smaller size. (Photo in ALPCA JUN-99 p.145)
An automobile ordinance was passed on June 16, 1902, but did not require registration or plates. A new ordinance, #21878, was passed on June 6, 1904, requiring owners of automobiles and motorcycles to pay a one-time $1 fee to the city auditor and display 3-inch-tall silver city-issued numerals on an owner-provided dark background on the rear of the machine. The Horseless Age issue of September 21, 1904, states that "The automobile owners of Columbus, O., have been notified by the City Auditor that they must pay their numbering fees. This action had been postponed in anticipation of the passage of a vehicle tax ordinance." That ordinance didn't pass until March 20, 1905, so it would seem that the 1904 ordinance was never enforced.
The 1904 ordinance was repealed by Ordinance #21927, passed March 20, 1905, which made sweeping changes to the usage of all vehicles on Columbus streets, including horse-drawn vehicles. While the license plate requirements remained the same as in 1904 for horseless vehicles, an annual tax was enacted, which is described below. A legal case, Pegg v. Columbus, makes references to this ordinance, which required licenses on all vehicles, including automobiles, motorcycles, bicycles, push carts and horse-drawn conveyances, and lists fees for each category. Licenses were now annual, with the license year being January 1 to December 31, and the fees were reduced each quarter on a prorated basis. Also listed are registration figures for the period August 13, 1906, through November 8, 1906, for each category:
212 automobiles with seating capacity of 1-2 persons ($5.00)
218 automobiles with seating capacity of 3+ persons ($7.50)
8 automobiles for freight or goods ($7.00)
7 motorcycles ($2.00)
Renowned Ohio-based license plate collector James Fox reports having seen an original listing of the registrations from this era, where it was clearly noted that 1-2-seat automobiles received lower numbers in the 3-digit range while 3+ seaters were issued numbers in the 9000 series. He owns a leather plate #9271 which fits this scenario. If this can be verified, these plates would have been the highest possible Ohio city prestates, since even Cleveland never got that high in its numbering!
Another case from this era, Frisbie v. Columbus, mentions a city requirement that owners have "an identification tag to be displayed." The only known plates are porcelains from 1907-08:
1907 White on Blue #17 - 721
1908 White on Blue #1170 - 2359
Motorcycle plates for 1911-13 have been reported but not verified.
The Stoddard-Dayton was manufactured here in 1905. While an automobile ordinance was in effect in November 1902, it did not provide for licensing or registration. The local board of safety adopted a resolution urging the city council to pass an ordinance making the display of automobile numbers compulsory, according to a Motor Age article in 1904. The Horseless Age reports on September 14, 1904, that "Eighty-five automobiles and three motorcycles have been registered in Dayton, Ohio."
Known automobile plates include a 1905 brass-on-black plate #383 with "DAYTON" sideways at left and "1905" sideways at right, and 1907 stencil plates #26 to #32; a 1908 plate has also been reported. Known motorcycle plates include a 1910 white-on-blue porcelain #287, 1912 white-on-red porcelains #59 to #291 and 1913 yellow-on-blue porcelains #25 to #528. The 1910 plate is dated "SEPT. 1, 1910".
A small 1906 tag #3 with "LICENSED VEHICLE", as well as a 1908 cast aluminum plate #3, are known, and a 1907 plate has also been reported.
A new revised automobile ordinance was ordered on August 8, 1905. An undated leather plate has been reported.
According to articles in the Elyria Republican, ordinance #1744 was passed on September 20, 1910, requiring motorcycles to register with the City Auditor and pay an annual $1 fee, due September 1 each year. City-issued 3-inch-tall aluminum numbers were to be mounted on an owner-provided dark background on the rear of the motorcycle, and numbers had to be arranged in a horizontal line. Non-residents were allowed 3 days, then were required to purchase a "letter" (probably an aluminum figure from "A" to "Z") for a $1 refundable fee.
Hamilton (35,279) (Und. reported)
An ordinance was passed on August 21, 1906, requiring all vehicles, including horse-drawn, to obtain a license from the Mayor, pay a fee of $10 for automobiles or $1 for motorcycles, and display an annual city-issued rear plate with 4-inch-tall numbers. The fee was prorated quarterly. A 1907 brass plate #96 is known with "HAML" vertically at left and "1907" vertically at right.
A Lima Times Democrat article on September 22, 1903, announces that an automobile ordinance was given its first reading, but there is no mention of a registration provision. Another article states that a meeting was also held on January 16, 1905, for the same purpose.
On June 29, 1911, the Lima News reported that "Up to date but thirty-eight motorcycle license tags have been issued at the city auditor's office. Tomorrow is the last day that machine owners can operate without tags..."
A Lima Daily News article on February 20, 1912, mentions an ordinance requiring annual city-issued motorcycle plates, with the registration year being January 1 to December 31. The $2 fee was to be paid to the City Auditor. The 1912 plates were ordered late because of few funds left in the city treasury during the winter months; therefore, motorcyclists were given a grace period. Another article on April 2, 1912, lists newly-issued motorcycle plates #63 to #69. Over 200 were issued in 1912. For 1913, 350 plates were ordered. 1912 black-on-white (#89) and 1913 green-on-white oval porcelain motorcycle plates #21 to #98 are known, and a 1908 has been reported.
An undated white-on-blue porcelain plate #1049 is known with "LORAIN OHIO" at top, believed to be from 1907.
Various articles in the Mansfield News give us a glimpse into a brief attempt at registration here. An ordinance was passed on May 11, 1903, requiring a city-issued rear "metal number" and a $3 fee to the City Auditor. On July 8, 1903, it was stated that only 2 automobiles had been licensed, and that they were issued license numbers 2 and 3 because #1 was being reserved for the very first automobile owner in Mansfield. Only 5 owners were registered as of July 23, 1903. A final article on September 11, 1903, mentions that the ordinance had been declared invalid in court on September 9 because it hadn't been published enough times!
An undated leather plate is known with "MARION" neatly lettered on one side and "588"
scrawled on the reverse side. For more details, please refer to Marion, Michigan.)
An ordinance passed November 20, 1906, required all automobiles to register with the City Auditor. The assigned number was to be displayed on the rear of the vehicle with an "M" prefix and numbers 4 inches tall, in "aluminum on black background." A leather plate #M305 is known, having been found locally.
Various Newark Daily Advocate news articles in 1913 reported on motorcycle plates. On January 22, an ordinance is mentioned requiring a city-issued motorcycle plate for a $1 fee, mandatory by February 1, 1913. On March 14, it is stated that 113 motorcycle plates had been issued in 1912 by the Safety Department at police headquarters.
An automobile speed ordinance was in effect as of April 4, 1905.)
An ordinance was passed in July 1903 requiring city-issued plates. The fee is unknown. The first shipment of plates was received by the City Auditor on July 20, 1903. Two licenses had been issued as of July 29, 1903, and numbers 1 through 9 were issued as of August 1, 1903.
An undated leather plate #107 is known with "SPRINGFIELD OHIO" at bottom, probably an automobile plate from before 1909. Also known are 1913 black-on-yellow embossed motorcycle plates #327 to #342 with "SPFD" vertically at left and "1913" vertically at right.
An automobile ordinance of July 7, 1902, did not provide for licensing or registration. But this changed sometime in 1903 - according to a December 1903 article in Municipal Journal and Engineer, "Toledo required owners of autos to pay $4 a year, and to display a three-inch number on each machine." An article in The Horseless Age on November 18, 1903, mentions that the effective date of the new ordinance is being delayed until January 1, 1904. Due to "several delays and the inability of the successful bidder to obtain sufficient aluminum the tags have not been delivered, though the law was passed several months ago." A subsequent article on September 7, 1904, states that "One hundred and seventy-five automobile licenses have been taken out in Toledo, O., during the past six months."
This ordinance appears to have been repealed sometime in 1904: The Automobile reports on September 14, 1905, that "Mayor Finch, of Toledo, proposes as a remedy for auto speeding in the main streets of the city, that a license ordinance be enacted and owners of cars required to display large numbers on the rear of their cars. Ohio has no registration law and Toledo has been without an auto license for a year."
A new automobile ordinance for speed limits only was passed on August 27, 1906. Another ordinance was passed on February 11, 1907, requiring 4-inch-tall city-issued silver numbers (or 3-inch-tall letters for motorcycles) on an owner-provided dark background on the rear of the machine. Plates with numbers signified automobiles while plates with letters identified motorcycles. The annual fee was $2. Non-residents were allowed 1 day before being required to purchase a $5 visitor license, returnable for a refund of $4. The March 7, 1907, issue of Motor Age stated that "Tags will be purchased probably this week or as soon as the legislation providing the fund is passed. The ordinance becomes effective on and after it is advertised, which will be about March 1." This report and a City Council resolution on June 17, 1907, to have the City Auditor purchase 500 additional "License tags" leads us to conclude that the entire plate, not just the numbers or letters, were city-issued. Motorcycles continued to be licensed after 1908. (See ALPCA JUN-95 p.88)
The Packard was manufactured here in 1901-02. A speed ordinance was in effect as of November 1902. 1908 porcelain plates #138 to #148 are known with "1908" sideways at left and "WARREN, O." at bottom.
A September 23, 1903, article in The Horseless Age reports that "Through a lack of definiteness in the local automobile law, the city clerk of Youngstown, Ohio, does not know whether to charge $1, $2 or $5 for licenses. The city council is to act on the matter."
Motorcycle Illustrated mentions in its August 15, 1908, issue, that motorcycle licenses are now required by ordinance, in addition to automobile licenses.