In the early years of the automobile, it was common for states to require the display of license plates years before they began manufacturing and issuing them. Known as the Prestate era, upon registration of a vehicle, the state would assign a license number to the owner, who would then be responsible for creating the license plate. A renewal fee was paid each year (all licenses expired May 31), but the plate number stayed constant.
Washington’s prestate era lasted from 1905, when auto registration first became mandatory, until 1915, when the state began issuing license plates.
The law in Washington required owners to display their assigned number along with the letters “WN” for Washington. The method for doing so was left open, and resulting license plates took a wide variety of forms. Sometimes the license number was simply painted on the vehicle. Plates themselves were made of wood, leather, or metal. Commercially-made plates were available from private companies.
Number issuance by year has been well documented. The year the number was assigned can be ascertained determined by the table below:
|Year ending May 31||Beg #||End #||Total Issued|
Massive ledgers of licenses issued and renewed between 1909 and 1913 survive in the Washington State Archives, providing a full record of the owner, address, and vehicle make for each registration number active during those years. During a visit in early 2018, a new fact came to light: starting around 1912, the state was actively recycling old, inactive numbers and registering them to motorcycles. Presumably, this was done in order to give motorcycle owners shorter numbers (by this point new numbers were five digits) thereby allowing them to make smaller license plates that fit more easily on motorcycles. Consequently, dating a prestate license plate by number is a bit less definitive. For example, number 873 would have originally been issued in early summer 1906, based on the table above, but the ledger shows it was also issued as a new registration on March 22, 1913 for a Thor motorcycle, meaning at some point the original owner of that number had stopped renewing his or her license, freeing up the number for reissue. Thus, it’s possible that two prestate plates could exist with number 873, one originally made in 1906, the other in 1912.
Complete registration example
Below is a document I have had in my collection for years: a registration certificate issued on April 1, 1910 to James Henry of Seattle, for his 1910 Maxwell, serial number 194.
The license number assigned was stamped in the middle section (#5582). The document control number (#8783) is at the top right.
Fortunately, the date of this certificate falls in the 1909-1913 date range, for which fairly complete records survive at the State Archives.
At right is the sub for the certificate, which resides in a bound book that was used to record license fees. Note the left side of the certificate is perforated, matching the right side of the stub, where they were attached more than a century ago.
The document control numbers match, as does all of the information and handwriting on my certificate.
All of this information was in turn entered into a huge bound volume containing about a year’s worth of registration records.
Notice James Henry’s registration being recorded for posterity (bottom line):
The only thing left to track down is the actual plate. Maybe it still exists somewhere, waiting to be discovered.