By Rod Hemmick
Part 1 – The “pre-state” era August 1907 thru June 1917
This article is the first part of a series which will cover the history of Texas license plates. It is an interesting fact, that when the first laws were passed requiring that automobiles be registered, the states did not actually “issue” license plates to vehicle owners. Instead, it was up to the vehicle owners to provide the license plate (or plates) to display on their vehicles.
Each state, of course, passed its own laws at different points in the early 1900’s. New York was the first state in the Union to require that vehicle owners register their vehicles. Beginning on May 25, 1901, all motor vehicles operating in the State of New York were required to have their vehicles registered with the State. It is interesting to note that these first registration numbers consisted only of the vehicle owner’s initials. Most of the surviving examples today suggest that the majority of these “first” license plates consisted of metal letters attached to a leather pad. Since these first license plates consisted only of the owners initials, it did not take long for a great number of duplications to become in existence. For that reason, by 1903 a system of numbers replaced the use of the owner’s initials in the State of New York.
This time period, which varies for each state, when the vehicle owner was required to furnish their own license plates, is referred to as the “pre-state” period in license plate history. Pre-state indicating that the period was prior to the period when the states actually provided the license plates to vehicle owners when they registered their vehicles.
Once a state began to issue license plates with vehicle registrations, it entered the second period which is usually referred to as the “state-issued” period. Today, all fifty states in the United States issue license plates to vehicle owners when their vehicles are registered.
The registration of motor vehicles in the State of Texas came about as the result of House Bill #93 which was introduced during the 30th Legislature which convened in Austin, Texas on January 8, 1907. This bill did not pass during the regular session, and became a matter of priority during the special session which was called on April 12, 1907 (the same day the regular session ended). House Bill #93 was passed on April 15, 1907 and became law on August 10, 1907.
This act required that “All owners of automobiles or motor vehicles shall, before using such vehicles or machines upon the public roads, streets or driveways, register with the county clerk of the county in which he resides, his name, which name shall be registered by the county clerk in consecutive order in a book to be kept for that purpose, and shall be numbered in the order of their registration, and it shall be the duty of such owner or owners to display in a conspicuous place on said machine the number so registered, which number shall be in figures not less than six inches in height. The county clerk shall be paid by such owner or owners a fee of fifty cents for each vehicle registered.” (As a note of interest, speed limits were also set by this act at 8 miles per hour while driving inside any city limits and 18 miles per hour while driving outside of any city limits). Thus began the “pre-state” era of licensing of motor vehicles in the State of Texas which would continue until June 30, 1917.
Efforts had begun as early as 1903 to establish a central authority for regulating the State’s highway system in Texas. During the period from 1903 to 1916, there were eighteen different bills introduced in the State legislature to establish a State highway department, but none of them were passed. This was due mainly to a strong feeling among many of the State’s citizens that such a move would create increased taxation. Also, there were many who were opposed to any type of “centralization” of state government. Thus, at the time the 1907 law came into effect, everything was left up to the individual counties. There was no statewide registration system. Each county that had a county clerk (not all did at this time) maintained its own set of records which, of course, created a duplication of registration numbers in every county that was registering vehicles at the time.
Since it was the vehicle owner’s responsibility to display the registration number on his vehicle, a wide variety of means were used to achieve this end. It is conceivable that many types of homemade license plates were created and some very interesting types have survived to this day. Some owners simply just painted the registration numbers directly on their vehicles.
The following represents a listing of some of the types of Texas pre-state license plates that have survived to this day:
1. Hand painted numbers on a leather pad.
2. Aluminum or Brass numbers attached to a leather pad
(some had a metal frame and solid metal backing)
3. Aluminum or Brass numbers attached to a metal plate.
4. Leather numbers stitched to a leather pad.
5. Hand painted numbers on a wooden plate or shingle.
6. Aluminum or Brass numbers on a wooden plate
(some had metal frames).
7. Numbers stenciled on a heavy gauge tin plate.
8. Porcelain “kit type” plates.
9. Metal “kit type” plates.
The type of porcelain license plates that were manufactured in some other states consisting of a single porcelain surface on a metal plate (similar to a porcelain sign) were never produced in Texas.
METAL NUMBERS ON LEATHER PAD WITH CLIPS ON TOP Many of the leather plates were most likely made by the local saddle shop or blacksmith. Large aluminum numbers (most likely house numbers) were attached by means of rivets or spread-type metal cotter pins. As these leather plates became more popular, manufactured versions began to appear in stores.
METAL NUMBERS ON WOODEN PLATE WITH METAL FRAME
Many featured an iron frame stitched inside the edge of the plate with two clips at the top of the plate for attaching to the vehicle.
METAL NUMBERS ON METAL PLATE For the most part these license plates carried only the vehicle registration number, but a few examples have survived with the city or county names or “TEXAS” also affixed to the plate along with the registration number.
This practice of displaying a city or county name or “TEXAS” on the license plate along with the registration number became much more widespread with the introduction of “kit type” license plates.
“Kit type” license plates were “store bought” license plates which featured a rack containing all the numbers and a metal frame to attach the numbers to, thus allowing a vehicle owner to make their own license plate in a kit form. It was not uncommon for city, county and “TEXAS” inserts to be available along with the numbers so a vehicle owner could display their city or county on their license plate, or identify their license plate as a Texas license plate, if so desired.
There were two types of these “kit type” license plates available to Texas motorists. One of the “kit type” license plates consisted of a metal frame into which white-on-blue porcelain inserts were installed. A vehicle owner could purchase porcelain inserts with their city or county name or an insert with “TEXAS” on it which could be included with their registration number.
PRE-STATE PORCELAIN KIT TYPE These porcelain “kit type” license plates were manufactured by the Stafford Illuminated Auto Lamp and Number Company of Chicago, Illinois. Many of these plates have a patent date of the back while others read only “Patent Pending”. The earliest verified patent date is February 14, 1911.
A second “kit type” license plate featured a metal base to which metal numbers (with tabs on them) were fastened. The metal bases were painted black and the numbers were painted silver. An oval nameplate with tabs was also available which was painted black with the city name or TEXAS stenciled in silver.
PRE-STATE METAL KIT TYPE
This very interesting “pre-state” period for the issuance of license plates in the State of Texas ended on June 30, 1917 with the beginning of “State issued” license plates on July 1, 1917.
The early part of this “state issued” period for the registration of license plates in Texas will be the subject of our next article.