The Collecting Hobby
People have been saving old license plates almost since they were first issued! While most of these early savers merely hung up the expired plates that had been on their own cars, there were a handful of pioneers who went beyond that to acquire additional plates, usually from other states. Recently, a real plate collection came to light that had been started in 1916 - this young man carefully labeled his plates and by 1922 had completed his goal of one plate from each U.S. state and Canadian province!
From the 1920s to the mid-1950s, the few serious collectors there were found each other through word-of-mouth, and they corresponded and traded through the mail regularly. One of the main goals of the leading hobbyists during the late 1940s was trying to establish what the first year of issue was for each state, and what the yearly color combinations were. In a few cases, we are still trying to nail this information down some 70 years later!
In 1954, a psychologist from Massachusetts moved into a new home only to discover a quantity of old plates still hanging in the barn. Intrigued by the positive effect on one's mental health of pursuing a unique collecting hobby, he searched for more collectors. Coincidentally, he found a Saturday Evening Post article featuring the plate collection of a postmaster from New Hampshire. Together, Dr. Cecil George and Postmaster Asa Colby founded the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association (ALPCA), becoming members #1 and #2. Soon, the new organization, ALPCA, started publishing mimeographed newsletters every two months, starting in December 1954. The fraternal club also began planning regional and national conventions, the first of which took place in 1955. For more information about ALPCA, and how to join, see the ALPCA page.
How does one go about finding old license plates? You can usually acquire a surprising amount of different plates from family, friends and coworkers just by asking around. Collecting odd items is much more accepted than it used to be, so most people are really willing to help! Next, try going to garage sales and recycling centers. Don't hesitate to ask if there are any plates, even if none are visible. Then, visit the local car dealerships, auto repair businesses and best of all, salvage yards. Make it clear you are only interested in expired tags, and offer to show the owners everything you find so they can check. Antique shops, auctions and online auction sites all yield plates, but before getting in too deep, it's best to do your research and get a good sense of fair prices. That's where joining ALPCA becomes the smartest move - you can learn what plates are worth as well as have direct access to more plates through so many other collectors.
How do you decide exactly what to collect? Starting out, it's easy to feel like you want to collect one of everything. But, one of the most important steps you can take as a beginning collector is to specialize. The beauty of the hobby is that there is no right or wrong way to collect. Everyone has different goals and specialties. Figure out what particular types of plates you gravitate towards. Popular projects include a one-per-state set, a one-per-year run from your home state or plates from your birth year. Many collectors branch out to collect every county from their state, collect a type of plate such as motorcycle plates or handicapped plates, or focus on certain materials (like porcelain, fiberboard, etc.) or specific eras of history. I recall one collector who only collected yellow plates - who knew there were so many shades of yellow?! Follow your heart!
The license plate hobby is going strong and prices continue to rise, especially on plates from in-demand states and years. Availability of old plates still seems to be fairly easy. Like other collectibles, there has been a certain amount of reproduction or replica plates produced in recent years, but the impact of these on the hobby has been minimal thanks to the strict no-reproduction policy ALPCA has held since about 1980. The best bargains in the hobby tend to be at donation auctions held at ALPCA conventions and regional meets, where one can score quantities of interesting plates for less than a dollar each.