August 14, 1893
With the passage of the Paris Police Ordinance, France became the first country to introduce motor vehicle registration. “Each motor vehicle shall bear on a metal plate and in legible writing the name and address of its owner, also the distinctive number used in the application for authorization,” read this ordinance. “This plate shall be placed at the left-hand side of the vehicle — it shall never be hidden.”
The efforts to implement vehicle registration in France predated the horseless carriage and can be traced as far back as the 18th century. In 1749, for example, a police officer in Paris recommended to King Louis XV that a system of vehicle registration be established in France’s capital city. The officer’s main motivation for this proposal was to keep better track of criminals in Paris and help rein in their illegal activities. While Louis XV never followed through on this proposal, his grandson and successor did adopt a version of it. In 1783, King Louis XVI made it mandatory for coachmen in Paris to place on their carriages metal plates that listed their names and addresses.
During the 19th century, several other French cities introduced their own registration systems for carriages. A case in point involves the city of Lyon. These residents, in order to legally use carriages to travel within the city’s Parc de la Tête (Park of the Golden Head), had to install on each vehicle a plate bearing a number. The Paris Police Ordinance that was enacted in 1893 basically extended such requirements for horse-drawn modes of transportation to the more modern motor vehicles.
In 1896, Germany followed suit by introducing a similar measure to help keep better track of its own ever-growing number of motor vehicles. Within a few years, other countries likewise began requiring numbered license plates and other means of identification for citizens who drove motor vehicles. The earliest license plates in the United States made their debut in New York in 1901 after Governor Benjamin Barker Odell Jr. signed into law a bill pertaining to motor vehicle owners throughout the Empire State. This law required that those individuals prominently display their initials on the back of their automobiles and that the vehicles be registered with the state.
A couple of years later, Massachusetts became the first state to officially issue license plates rather than just set forth requirements for them. By 1918, nearly all of the other states had started following Massachusetts’ lead when it came to the formal issuance of license plates to motorists.
In the decades since the large-scale inauguration of license plates in France and elsewhere, tens of billions of similar tags for motor vehicle registration purposes have been produced and used across the globe.
For more information on the history of vehicle license plates in France, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vehicle_registration_plates_of_France.
Additional information on milestones in the development of vehicle license plates is available at https://www.historicvehicle.org/licence-plates-a-timeline/.