Have you ever wondered how archeologists and historians seem to know even the smallest details about past civilizations and ancient communities that haven’t existed for centuries? Even the most basic elements in our lives give away details and clues to describe past generations. Something as simple as our license plates offer a glimpse into what happened in the world during its creation. They serve as a marker of history. The evolution of Michigan’s license plates through the decades captures many social and economic changes. These changes affected the state and the country starting way back in 1903.
In the beginning of the 20th century, the auto industry was blooming in Detroit. The city council enacted laws to register all motor vehicles. In 1903, Michigan began issuing license plates by each individual city. Eventually in 1905, the Michigan Secretary of State adopted the statewide vehicle registration.
The government gave out the disc-like plates and featured the registration number. Annual plate renewal cost a whopping $3. Each one had to be displayed on the dash or hung from the rear view. The car also had to have a license plate, most of which featured the house number and the required abbreviation MICH. Plates were located on the front and the back of the car. The car owner made their own plates out of a variety of materials, including leather or wood and even rubber. You could also order license making kits from such companies as Sears Roebuck. The same plate could be used as long as the car was registered.
It wasn’t until 1910 that Michigan issued its first official license plates. They were made out of heavy cast iron then sealed with a glossy porcelain finish. It carried the seal of the state. That lasted until about 1915. Then embossed steel plates replaced them. Prisoners had the duty of making plates in 1918. Production became privatized in 1919. The job then went back to the prisons in 1920. When the Great Depression hit, many people could no longer afford to pay for their car registration. Michigan offered half-year registration to car owners until about 1946. During this time, they also started issuing metal tabs to attach to their plates to avoid issuing new ones to conserve metal during the war. In the early 30s, they also began using Vv on plates to honor our nation’s veterans.
When the post-war era rang in and baby boomers flooded the economy, tourism also picked up. Michigan started printing WATER WONDERLAND on license plates, proclaiming one of our greatest attractions. This was the slogan from 1954 to 1964. Then it changed to WATER-WINTER WONDERLAND until 1967. With this slogan change, the plates were produced with galvanized steel in order to survive the Michigan winters. Water-Winter Wonderland remained on plates until 1982. (With the exception of 1976-1978 which had red, white and blue plates for the centennial.)
In 1954 the color was maize on blue to honor the University of Michigan. It changed to green and white the following year for Michigan State. Through the years, the colors have changed a variety of times including magenta, maroon, and even light purple. Looking for a sustainable numbering system, a Detroit office came up with a two letter, four number system that went into place in 1940. Eventually, it changed to a three letter, three numeral system during the 70s. This is the same decade that people could choose personalized plates for the first time. License plates also became available through the mail, making registration easier.
Then, in 1983 the GREAT LAKE STATE appeared on the plate. Annual registration changed according to birthdate instead of at the end of February which caused a mad dash to renew. In this decade, the first license plate featuring a Lake Superior blue background became available. It became known as “Old Blue.” The number of required plates dropped to one per vehicle instead of the two that had been required since 1957. In the 80s, Michigan exhausted its plate combinations, and they begin to reverse the letters and numbers.
With the 90s came a flood of new plate options, from commemorative to charitable. In 1995, a plate was designed to help support the U.S. Olympic Education Center in Marquette. Two years later the Great Lakes Splendor plate became available with the sun rising over the Straits of Mackinac. Then, in 2000 fundraising plates offered to help support the 15 public universities. In 2001, the purchase of a plate supported six different causes. The causes included clean water, agricultural heritage, the Children’s Trust Fund, non-game wildlife habitat, lighthouse preservation, as well as the Veterans’ Memorial Fund. The September 11th attacks prompted the design of the Proud To Be American plate. In 2006, Michigan held a contest for the new commemorative plate and chose the Spectacular Peninsulas as the new standard commemorative plate.
Now you probably have more information about Michigan’s license plates than you ever thought you would know. As a state that once was the epicenter of auto manufacturing, the history of the license plate is a fun side note of an industry that played such a huge role in Michigan. Visit Michigan.gov for a complete timeline of Michigan’s vehicle registration. Check out the Secretary of State if you want to order a special plate for your own car. If you are a collector of antique plates, you can find them online at sites like eBay or Michigan License Plates for Collectors.
What is your favorite Michigan license plate design?