DEFINING PRE-STATE LICENSE PLATES
What is a "pre-state"? A simple definition of this term is difficult to establish primarily due to the extremely wide array of surviving license plates from the first two decades of motor vehicle registration history (1898-1918), as well as the diverse circumstances under which such plates were issued and/or used. An obvious starting point would be to apply the term "pre-state" to any identifiable or documented pre-1918 plate which was not actually issued by a state, territory, province or federal district. But even with this most basic "definition by process of elimination", we run into trouble, as some pre-states were made using the back sides of state-issued plates, such as Delaware 1908 on the reverse of a Pennsylvania 1907.
Let's start with the two most basic categories that the vast majority of surviving pre-state plates fall into: 1.) Owner-supplied plates made to fulfill a requirement of either city or state registration, or 2.) City-issued plates required before the state passed a law providing for state registration. Beyond these primitive categories, there are many overlaps and gray areas which we have had to develop interpretations of on a case-by-case basis. It is this very murkiness which simultaneously serves as the central point of intrigue and enjoyment in the study and collecting of pre-state plates, and also the singular frustration in achieving both a clear and concise definition of what "pre-states" are and accurately understanding their history. This field of study is still in its infancy; many new and exciting discoveries await us in the future, some of which may well contradict our best knowledge as we understand it at present.
The first category, that of owner-supplied plates, encompasses everything from numbers crudely painted onto a slab of wood, to house numbers riveted to a leather pad, to self-assembly kit-type plates, to custom-made professionally manufactured plates of brass or porcelain-coated iron, often ordered from a mail supply firm. We purposely avoid the term "home-made" because, in our research experience, we believe that plates actually hand-crafted by the owners themselves are relatively uncommon; most people purchased them from their local hardware store or out of a catalog. Those "created" by owners were generally just painted directly onto the vehicle body and don't count as "plates".
The city or state typically stipulated the basic parameters of the plate, such as the minimum size of the numbers, the size and location of an identifying name or abbreviation, if any, and often the color scheme also. Usually, the colors were specified in general terms such as black on white, or white on black, while other times, the law only suggested concepts such as "numerals of contrasting shade" or "dark background." Beyond these general guidelines, motorists were free to "design" and construct their license plates any way they saw fit. Plates of every conceivable color, size, shape, material and quality of execution appeared on the roads, some of which survive today. (Many "plates" have not survived simply because their numbers were painted onto the vehicle's body itself, then lost to posterity when the vehicle was sold, repainted or junked a few short years later.) To envision this huge diversity of number appearance, visit an older neighborhood near you with a street of old homes built close together, and observe the great variety of styles and methods by which the homeowners have displayed their house numbers. It's amazing how little uniformity there is! It was not all that different with motor vehicle numbers in the 1898-1918 era.
The second category, officially-issued plates originating from a city or county in a state which did not yet issue state registration plates, is easy to identify in most cases because known plates typically included the name or initials of the city or county, and sometimes the date of issue. A typical example is the series of three Cincinnati brass plates from 1906, 1907 and 1908. The following chart depicts the various categories of pre-state and state-issued plates:
PRE-STATE PLATES STATE-ISSUED PLATES
Owner-provided city plates State-issued state plates
Owner-provided state plates
City-provided city plates
Gray areas result from the way some states wrote their early registration laws. A case in point is the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which issued license plates from 1906 through 1909. However, the number these plates actually displayed was the operator's license number, the equivalent of today's driver's license number. The vehicles themselves were not yet registered by the state, so Pennsylvania registration plates didn't begin until 1910. Until then, several cities registered vehicles and issued plates. So we have both city and state plates overlapping in 1906-09, but the city plates qualify as pre-states since they were issued before state registration took effect in 1910. As a result of this and similar cases (such as West Virginia 1905-17), we were obligated to review all of the early state, territorial, provincial and federal district laws, as well as some local city ordinances, to ascertain whether they truly provided for motor vehicle registration, operator licensing, or both, and to determine for which purpose "license" plates were used for.
In some cases, it is unclear if city plates were actually issued by the city or provided by owners. Either way, they qualify as pre-states as long as they pre-date their home state's first law requiring state-issued registration plates. But identifying their exact origin cannot always be accomplished beyond a reasonable doubt based solely on a plate's appearance. Cities often contracted for plates from the same companies that private owners custom-ordered their plates from. For example, not all leather plates are owner-provided. In Kansas alone, the cities of Dodge City, Garfield, Iola, Larned, Macksville, Marysville, Topeka, WaKeeney, Wellington and Wichita issued official undated leather plates, the Topeka ones having no identifier whatsoever. Conversely, professional-looking factory-produced plates were not limited to official issues by state or local governments. A 1910 New Brunswick porcelain plate exists, no doubt custom-ordered by a well-to-do motorist, made by a firm in Baltimore, Maryland, who was contracted to manufacture all of the Massachusetts plates that year. Paradoxes such as this add curiosity and challenge for collectors and researchers of early license plates, whether they be pre-states or state/provincial issues of that era.
Another area of confusion results from different standards for separate vehicle and/or registration types. Many states did not adopt registration requirements for motorcycles, or issue special plates for them, until some years after the regular automobile plates had begun, and the same phenomenon occurred to a far lesser extent for dealer plates. Using Ohio as an example again, cities continued to issue plates to motorcycles up through 1913 because the state did not register them until 1914. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania registered motorcycles along with automobiles starting in 1910, but no plates were issued to motorcyclists, which had to provide their own plates until 1914. So we have a brief era of motorcycle pre-states in Ohio and Pennsylvania, running concurrently with the state-issued automobile plate system in both states.
Even state-issued plates are not as easy to define as one would think. Already mentioned are the Pennsylvania 1906-09 and West Virginia 1905-17 plates, which were state-issued, but are not registration plates. Aside from technicalities such as Alaska 1958 and Hawaii 1957 plates issued before statehood, but remaining in use with revalidating tabs or windshield stickers for 1959, there are examples of state-issued plates existing alongside equally valid owner-supplied plates in Indiana (1905-13) and Oregon (1905-11). The greatest dilemma is Montana: While it is widely known that the 1913-14, 1915 and 1916 plates sold by the Secretary of State were optional, and like Indiana and Oregon, owners could choose to save the nominal extra fee by providing their own plates, what was only recently discovered is that these plates were ordered and paid for by the Secretary personally, for private profit, and not in any capacity as a state official. Are they state-issued plates if they weren't officially sanctioned by the state? Well, this question turns any easy definition on its side!