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When license plates first appeared in the U.S., drivers competed to obtain the plates with the lowest numbers as a status symbol

Domagoj Valjak

Countries around the globe introduced car license plates in the 1890s and the early 1900s. In 1893, France introduced the concept of license plates and was the first country that required drivers to mark their cars with custom-made plates. Five years later, the Netherlands was the first country to introduce state-issued license plates. In 1901, two years after the first official car-related death in the U.S., which occurred when a taxi cab struck and killed a 68-year-old pedestrian, New York was the first state in the United States that required drivers to mark their cars with their initials written in black over a white background.

By 1918, all states had embraced the concept of state-issued license plates and all cars of the time were fitted with plates that were not very different from contemporary license plates. Interestingly, license plates appeared way before driver’s licenses: throughout the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, many high schools, YMCAs, and community education programs across the nation offered driving lessons, but mandatory driving tests and driving licenses were not introduced until early in the 1940s. Until then, practically anyone could have sat behind the wheel without any legal repercussions.

In early 1903, Massachusetts was the first state to introduce mandatory state-issued license plates. During that same year, 3,241 cars and 502 motorcycles across the state were fitted with plates, made from iron and covered in porcelain enamel. Also, they were painted blue and contained only a number painted in white and no additional letters. The words “Mass. Automobile Register” appeared above the number.

The first such plate, which bore the number “1,” was issued to Frederick Tudor of Brookline, a wealthy automotive enthusiast who was working with the highway commission and was the nephew of the magnate Henry Lee Higginson, the founder of Boston Symphony Orchestra and the person who persuaded the State Automobile Department to introduce mandatory state-issued plates.

Tudor was casually driving around Boston in his car, which was clearly marked as the number one car in the state: such a public display of power and importance, which many members of the Massachusetts upper class saw as shameless, immediately sparked a wave of jealousy among the rich and the famous.

At that time, only the wealthiest members of the upper class could afford a car, and they all suddenly wanted to acquire license plates as soon as possible because Frederick Tudor initiated this peculiar new trend. The license plate number became a status symbol. Those with the lowest numbers on their plates were seen as the most influential members of the community.

Nobody could beat Tudor, the absolute pioneer of license plates and the state’s number one driver, but plates with numbers from “2” to “50” were quickly acquired by those who were most eager to display their importance in public.

This unusual trend continued across the nation until the mid-1920s. By then, all states required drivers to display state-issued license plates on their vehicles and the number of cars was constantly and rapidly growing, so new cars simply couldn’t get plates with low numbers. Still, even nowadays some vehicle owners across the U.S. desire to show off with the low numbers on their plates just like the primordial drivers from the beginning of the 20th century. The luckiest ones can actually do that because of an unusual lottery which the Registry of Motor Vehicles has been organizing for the past two decades.

Namely, every once in a while, the Registry of Motor Vehicles organizes a lottery with the aim of clearing out low numbered license plates from its inventory. Some people who enter the lottery are lucky enough to have their vehicles fitted with plates that have only three or even just two digits.

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Unfortunately, nobody will be able to top Frederick Tudor’s “number 1” plate for a long time: the plate is still used by his descendants.