By Ryan Lee Price

Up until 1900 in Massachusetts, there were no laws governing the rules of the roads for any type of traffic—carriages, wagons, pedestrians—especially for the burgeoning numbers of automobiles. Not only was it confusing, but a mix of so many modes of transportation was also quite dangerous. For example, the first auto-related death in the U.S. happened in New York in 1899 when 68-year-old Henry Bliss was struck by a taxi near Central Park.
The Massachusetts Legislature passed a bill in 1892, creating a Commission of Inquiry that noted more than 90 percent of the roads were in very poor condition and were only going to get worse as traffic increased. This investigation led to the creation of the Massachusetts Highway Commission a year later; it was one of the first such governmental bodies in the country to “improve the public roads, and to define its powers and duties,” according to the 1893 Commission Report.
Meanwhile, wealthy Henry Lee Higginson (he was the founder of Boston Symphony Orchestra) was growing tired of cars regularly exceeding the speed limit of 15 miles an hour on the roads near his summer estate. He submitted a petition in 1903 about his problem entitled, “A Petition Relative to Licensing Automobiles and Those Operating the Same.”
Higginson had influential friends.
By June of that same year, as a way of creating the revenue to improve the roads, as well as identifying cars involved in newly created traffic infractions, Massachusetts passed a provision in Chapter 473 of the Acts of 1903, creating the “automobile department” (headed by Elting O’Hara, the highway commission board’s stenographer). As Higginson suggested, the new “automobile department” required all automobile owners to register their cars and pay the two dollar fee each year; in exchange, license plates were issued to each registered car. The public had until September to comply. Incidentally, New York had been the first to require license plates in 1901, but relied on the car owners to make their own. Massachusetts was the first state in the nation to issue plates, and by New Year’s Eve 1903, 3,241 automobiles and 502 motorcycles (in addition to 692 chauffeur licenses and car manufacturer licenses) helped deposit $17,684 into the state treasury.
The very first license plate issued by a state government (Number 1) was issued on September 1, 1903, to Frederick Tudor of Brookline. Not only was Tudor just the right man at the right time, but he was working with the highway commission at the time and he just so happened to be the nephew of Henry Lee Higginson.
These early Massachusetts license plates were made of iron and covered in a porcelain enamel. The background was colored a cobalt blue and the number was white. Along the top of the plate were the words, “MASS. AUTOMOBILE REGISTER.” The size of the plate was not constant; it grew wider as the plate number reached into the tens, hundreds, and thousands.
Immediately after the first license plates appeared, drivers in Massachusetts were vying to obtain the lowest numbered plate available as a symbol of status. For the past 20 years, the Registry of Motor Vehicles has held a lottery to clear out low numbered license plates from its inventory. Nearly 5,000 people enter this lottery every year in the hopes of winning a much coveted low-number plate, and even though a three- or four-digit license plate can carry an air of exclusivity to its owner, no one can get any better than Tudor’s license plate Number 1, which is still actively registered to one of his descendants.
License plates are one part of a car that are usually trouble-free. Count on Chilton for maintenance and repair information when trouble arises, such as the rare cases when the auto manufacturer says the license plate needs a little TLC, or specifies hardware for a proper fit.
License plates play a part in all of our lives. Would you recognize the license plates from popular TV shows and movies? Try our quiz at the Chilton facebook page,

Not only is Ryan Lee Price a freelance writer specializing in automotive journalism and a former long-time magazine editor, he is part of the technical editorial team that provides content for most all of the ChiltonPRO and ChiltonDIY products. He currently resides in Corona, California, with his wife Kara and their two children.