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Curiosity Corner: Playing the Nebraska license plate game
May 13, 2016 Gretchen Deter   

Read more by Gretchen Deter

An example of one of Nebraska’s early license plates, which would have been hand made by the local saddle maker, with metal numbers attached by rivets to leather, then hung or nailed onto the car.

With summer around the corner, it’s time for family vacations and other travels. I remember when I was little, my parents took the four of us kids on our annual July vacation to some lake in Minnesota. At the time, our vacations were driving trips down Highway 30 in an old Packard with jump seats.

Mom would always plan car games to pass the time. And, we weren’t allowed to ask: “Are we there yet?” until we got to Wahoo, Nebraska. Our favorite car game was matching license plates. How many could we find from County No. 21, or No. 1 or whatever, but they had to be from Nebraska. It is no doubt different today with videos, smart phones, and iPads. However, back in the 1940s, license plates were part of our vacations.

In 1905, the first Nebraska license plates were issued by the Secretary of State. Actually, an automobile owner did not get a license plate. He got a certificate and a little round disc that looked like a stamped dog tag. The stamp was not really an auto registration number, but a number to identify “scoundrels,” or irresponsible drivers, who made too much noise, scaring horses and neighbors. In fact, so it was said, some of the dog-tag numbers were the owner’s home address, which made it easy for the local police to find offending car owners. In 1905, horses and carriages far outnumbered automobiles and many citizens did not like the new “horseless carriages.”

Once owners received their registration tags, they had to make their own license plates, displaying it on the back bumper of their car and then nailing the tag on the dashboard. Most of these early license plates were made of leather with metal numbers and attached to vehicles with rivets. Why leather? It was available, sturdy, relatively standard in color, and easy for most anyone to make. A leather license plate was usually made by a local saddle or leather maker who were abundant in any rural town. These early leather license plates are now quite rare and a collector fortunate enough to have one is a lucky collector, indeed. I found a leather license plate in less than mint condition priced at $1,200.

With the increase of the number of automobiles, the problem of auto registration also increased. It was not feasible for an owner to make his own plates. In 1915, the Department of Motor Vehicles was created to regulate auto registration and the DMV began to issue standard license plates for the State of Nebraska. In 1922, the state started identifying automobiles with numerical prefixes, which corresponded to the county in which the auto was owned. Douglas County was issued No. 1 because it had the most vehicles. Counties were then responsible for issuing the plates and collecting fees. Every year, it seemed there were controversies and complaints about types or styles of license plate. Some didn’t like the color, others the design and others didn’t like the numbers.

The only year registered license plates did not have numerical prefixes and was in 1951. For some reason, the DMV decided to replace the numerical prefixes with letter prefixes making a license plate from Scotts Bluff County read: SC-12345. Still complaints abounded. No one knew what the abbreviations meant and much of the time they couldn’t readily identify the counties. So, in 1952, they went back to the old numerical prefixes and Scotts Bluff County was again 21-12345.

As time passed, license plate sizes, colors, designs, and numbering systems became standard. The DMV later issued annual stickers to save on actual plate replacement; they used reflective material; they issued different types for different vehicles; and periodically, they changed the design on the plate. This year, 2016, Nebraska has again incurred the gripes of unhappy license plate owners. (Editor’s note: An errant design of the seed sower atop the state Capitol halted the issue of a new license plate. A redesigned plate will be issued in 2017, in time for Nebraska’s 150th birthday as a state.) The problem will be resolved and forgotten in a short time. We can forget the current controversy, but I hope you don’t forget the little known history of the “Nebraska License Plate.” And, by the way, on your next car trip, try playing the license plate game with the kids.

An example of one of Nebraska’s license plates when letters were used rather than county numbers. License plate photos are from the collection of Bob McKelvie.
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