There are probably no more than a couple-thousand American pre-state license plates surviving today from the first decade of the 20th century, from the tens-of-thousands of autos registered during the period 1901-10.
It stands to reason that all of these license plates are scarce or genuinely rare. First, all are now all at least 100 years old. Secondly, they were made for the most part from fragile materials, and in the case of wood, leather and sheet metal were biodegradable. Thirdly, these tags were made to be used for a specific purpose – complying with a government regulation – and were intended to be tossed aside when no longer needed. Given the low registration figures for all but a few jurisdictions, it’s a wonder that as many plates survive as are known in collections today.
Almost every month or so, a new discovery is made of some obscure small American town which had its own license plates in the 1900-10 period. It is amazing how much new information comes forth from the general public in the form of garage and attic finds, or from digging in bottle dumps and other excavations. Nobody has a full list of all the specific towns that used early license plates, and we may never have them all documented.
Contact us if you have or know about an early license that you do not find here.
We are not dealers – just hobbyists and researchers for over a half-century. We may be very interested in buying your plate to add to the collection (and to this site) but we will not pressure you. Most importantly, we want your information! If you wish to remain anonymous, that is your decision.
The first question a collector is always asked is “what are they worth?” It’s a fair question, but one that requires quite a bit of qualification. Some jurisdictions, such as California and New York, issued over 100,000 registration numbers – all of which were made up by auto owners as pre-state plates of one type or another, often in pairs. The survival rate of those states’ pre-state tags is actually quite high, and are priced accordingly unless the tag is very low-numbered or was made in exotic colors, materials (i.e. porcelain) or design. On the other hand, there may be only one or two pre-states known from some smaller cities and towns, and prices can range many times higher than the most common states.
Condition and integrity are very important in determining collectibility and value of any antique, including license plates. To achieve the greatest worth, a pre-state license plate must have all its digits and characters in place, and must not be substantially torn, mutilated or deteriorated. Likewise, too much cleaning, and any repainting, restoration, or replacement of characters will seriously compromise the value of the tag. Collectors appreciate plates that show the patina of a century of aging but have not been damaged badly over the years – in other words “used, but not abused”.
American pre-state license plates can be grouped into four “rarity categories” from most difficult to easiest to obtain today. While the individual groupings may be subject to debate, the classifications below are generally reliable based on over 40 years of collecting, research, and study:
• Easiest to obtain: Pre-states from California, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey, and New York. These were either high-population, industrialized states, or important agricultural producers, which had significant numbers of licensed automobiles early in the century. Also included in this category are all pre-state licenses that do not have identification as to the city or state of origin. Of course, if the paper registration or government-issued medallion disc is present, then the plate is considered to have been identified, and should be included in the appropriate category.
• Somewhat difficult to find, but available with effort: Pre-states from Connecticut, Maryland, Missouri, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, and Washington. Texas is somewhat unique in that most licenses included the city or county where it was used, but these are actually state-mandated tags (many actually do have TEXAS spelled out). License plates in this group are generally more valuable, and require more effort and expenditure to collect.
• Most difficult to find today: Arizona, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Utah. Pre-state license plates from these states are genuinely rare and highly sought after by serious collectors. Prices are, of course, subject to negotiation based on condition and low-registration numbers.
• All city or county pre-state license plates. Each and every early license issued by any city or county government, or made by the auto owner, is considered rare if the tag includes the name of the city and/or a date (except Texas – see above). Many of these plates are one-of-a-kind and command very high prices from serious collectors – based in part, of course, on condition and integrity of the original materials.
Remember please: If you have one or more pre-state license plates in your possession and would like a free appraisal or more information, please use the contact us link. You do not need to identify yourself if you don’t want to! Thank you.