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  Texas : Features : Columns : "It's All Trew"

Tagging vehicles has colorful history

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew
The idea of requiring automobile identification numbers originated in New York State in 1901. With a fee imposed, it became a license.

The term tags originated in Michigan in 1905 when vehicle owners received small, aluminum, numbered discs the size of a silver dollar.

A Vehicle Registration Act was adopted by the Texas Legislature on August 10, 1907. Cost was 50 cents with the vehicle owner responsible for constructing and installing the plate. Most license plates were made of leather with house numbers riveted to the surface.

After establishing the Texas Highway Department in 1917, the licensing fee increased to 35 cents per horsepower and the state began issuing standard design license plates. No year of issuance was needed as the plate was good as long as the vehicle was used in Texas. This rule lasted until 1920 when year issue dates were adopted. The plates were black with white letters.

As the automobile came of age, the numbers grew at a tremendous rate forcing the state to void all old numbers in 1923 and issue new registrations. Pairs of plates for front and back of vehicles started in 1926. Alphabetical letters were introduced into plates in 1931. "A" was shown on the first 100,000 registrations, "B" for 200,000 etc. Later, "A" was for the first 1,000,000 vehicles and other letters for greater numbers.

National and worldwide events affected issuance of license plates periodically. The Great Depression in 1933 left citizens short of funds so the legislature adopted a law allowing current plates be legal until March 31, 1935.

Because of the shortage of 1933 license plates issued, they have become collector items. This was also the beginning of the long-standing April 1 deadline date for renewing Texas vehicle registration.

No new license plates were issued in 1943 and 1944 because of WWII. Small metal tabs were used instead. New plates came in 1945 and 1946 but only one plate was required instead of two. Reflector-type paint for license digits began in 1969.

My favorite license plate story comes from Ft. Sumner, N.M., where leather plates were issued for wagons and buggies with the fees paying for a man to clean the manure from the main thoroughfares to prevent odors and flies. This was long before the advent of automobiles.

During hard times, cash-short vehicle owners (such as us farmers) bought one license plate and changed it from vehicle to vehicle depending on which car, pickup or truck was going to town.

I once saw an old-time photo of a house in Nevada with a roof constructed of license plate shingles. Another house nearby was roofed with flattened Prince Albert tobacco cans.

As a young boy I used throw-away license plates to build play bridges on my play roads, roofs for bird houses, patching holes in buildings, covering rat holes, flooring hen nests and sealing the holes rusted in the bottom of our trash-burning barrels. I used baling wire to attach plates to my red wagon, bicycle and a well-used Cushman motor scooter.

I can remember the pride felt when I purchased by first license plate for my first car.

Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew" >

July 18, 2006 Column
E-mail: trewblue@centramedia.net.
 
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