TOTAL KNOWN PORCELAIN VARIETIES: 23
I: PRE-STATES / CITY & COUNTY PLATES
Prior to 1910, when the state of Kentucky began the issuance of standardized
plates, a number of larger cities in the state issued their own porcelain plates.
The earliest example dates from 1906-07, and the practice continued in
jurisdictions such as Louisville, Lexington, and Paducah into 1911 and even 1912,
thus forcing owners to display both a state issued plate as well as a city marker -
often to the strenuous objections of the motorists. City plates are known from
such jurisdictions as Richmond, Hopkinsville, and Winchester, but the only
porcelain issues known come from a select group of cities: Cattletsburg,
Covington, Lexington, Louisville, Ludlow, Mayfield, Newport, and Paducah.
Incorporated in the mid-19th century, Catlettsburg is a strategically located town
on the eastern border of Kentucky on the Ohio River where Ohio, Virginia and
Kentucky all meet. Catlettsburg served as a Union Army supply depot during the
Civil War and by the turn of the 20th century, it had become the largest hardwood
timber market in the world. Nevertheless, with perhaps 3,000 or 4,000 residents
living there at the time porcelain license plates were issued in 1909, Catlettsburg
is the smallest of all Kentucky cities known to have issued a porcelain license
plate. There is only one example of these plates surviving in collectors' hands
Founded in 1814 and incorporated in 1834, Covington is a city on Kentucky's
northern border across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. By 1900, nearly 43,000
residents lived in the city. The heyday for Covington as the commercial center for
Northern Kentucky was the first two decades of the 20th century. During these
decades, the city's downtown was a bustling place of activity, with numerous
restaurants, department stores, shops, saloons, banks, theaters, and offices
bringing swarms of people to the downtown commercial district. Not surprisingly,
it was at this time of prosperity that Covington began issuing porcelain license
plates. The first known Covington plates are elaborate metal plates dated 1909.
But in 1910, the city switched to the issuance of porcelains. There are about half
a dozen of these attractive green 1910 plates known, including a pair, making it
the only Kentucky city from which a pairs are known to have been issued. The
highest known number is just over fifty, suggesting that very few of these plates
may have ever been issued. A flat painted metal 1910 Covington is known as well,
but its use remains a mystery.
Founded in 1775, Lexington was named after Lexington, Massachusetts. By 1820,
it had become one of the largest and wealthiest towns west of the Allegheny
Mountains. So cultured was its lifestyle, Lexington gained the nickname "Athens
of the West." The city's early economy was fueled by slavery, and by mid-century,
Lexington had the highest concentration of slaves in the state. The licensing
laws of Lexington are complex and little understood. We know that vehicles in
the city were required to carry plates as early as February of 1909. However, it is
unclear what these plates were made of. In March of that year, newspapers
reported that the city had ordered 200 "metallic license tags." A year later, a city
ordinance mandated aluminum numbers at least three inches in height. Over the
next few years, there was legal conflict between automobile owners and the city
of Lexington over the legality of the city license law, in light of the state license
law which was in effect at that time. Contradictory statements pepper the
historical record during this time. In April of 1911, for instance, the "Lexington
Herald" was reporting that the city license law had been abolished by the General
Council. And yet in September, the newspaper was reporting that motorists
without city plates would be arrested. In March of 1913, when Lexington's
population had surpassed 150,000, there were approximately 300 registered
vehicles in the city, but again, no separate license plates were apparently
required. Nevertheless, in spite of this confusing documentation, there are two
different varieties of Lexington porcelain city plates. One is dated 1911, and is
probably a 1910-11 issue, while the other is the only known example of an undated
city porcelain from Kentucky and likely predates the 1911 plate. Interestingly, as
Lexington is located in central Kentucky, it and Mayfield are the only cities in the
state to issue porcelain plates that are not located on the Ohio River.
Lying on the Ohio River on the Indiana border, Louisville is by far the biggest city
in Kentucky. First settled in the late 18th century, industry and manufacturing -
helped tremendously by the arrival of steamboats - didn't really reach Louisville
until about 1800. After that, Louisville's population grew rapidly, tripling from 1810
to 1820. By 1830, it would surpass Lexington to become the state's largest city.
And by mid-century, Louisville was the tenth largest city in the nation. The
building of canals and railways further bolstered the city's commercial
prominence, which was built on slave labor. During the Civil War, Louisville was a
major stronghold of Union forces, which kept Kentucky firmly in the Union.
Downtown Louisville began a modernization period in the 1890s and by the turn of
the century, there were nearly a quarter-million residents of the city. It was at this
time of growth that license plates first made their appearance on the scene.
The porcelain issues span six years, although they are mysteriously rare, with a
total of only ten or so combined survivors known, which is odd considering that
nearly 225,000 people lived in the city at the time. Each plate was a multi-year
plate, expiring in May. The 1906-07 plate is the earliest known dated porcelain
from Kentucky. This unique plate surfaced in 2008, surprising collectors, who had
no idea Kentucky porcelains dated back that far. In 1908-09, the third known year,
there are two varieties in opposite colors for some unknown reason. One of them
is numbered 300, leading some to speculate that it was a prototype and that the
blue version is the actual issued plate. Further evidence of this possibility lies in
the fact that the blue one has The Baltimore Enamel & Novelty Company's
distinctive porcelain dating system on the reverse - in this case "38" to indicate a
date of manufacture of March, 1908 - while the white one is unmarked.
No plate expiring in May of 1910 is known, but research by Eric Tanner has
revealed that these plates were red and that some 900 of them were issued in
1909-10. In 1910-11, registrations in Louisville finally surpassed 1,000 and the city
placed an initial order for 1,200 porcelains from the manufacturer. That year,
interestingly, bases were variable in size depending on the number of digits. This
is one of only two cases of variable sized city or county porcelain plates known
from the U.S. Oddly enough, four digit plates on the small-sized 1911-12 base are
known, so apparently the practice of producing two sizes was abandoned after
one year. These last two issues were also manufactured by Baltimore Enamel and
stamped with their familiar oval logo.
In addition to the above porcelains from Louisville, which appear to be standard
passenger plates that all motorists in the city were required to carry, there is also
one known porcelain from Louisville that had a much more obscure purpose. This
plate surfaced in 2016 and the owner believed he had a plate from Iowa because
it said "IA" on it. However, further research revealed that the apparent "IA" was
actually a "1A" and represented a One-Animal Wagon from the city of Lousiville.
Such plates are not unknown and I've seen photos of plates as early as 1906 and
as late as 1929 - both 1A and 2A - but every one of these survivors is an
embossed metal plate. The plate pictured below remains the only surviving
porcelain version in collectors' hands. It's highly unfortunate that the date is
completely chipped off, and we will have to wait for another one to surface before
we can properly date the plate.
Located along the Ohio River in Northern Kentucky, the City of Ludlow is is a
suburb of Covington, KY, and Cincinnati, OH. Incorporated in 1864, Ludlow
covers approximately 2 square miles and lies at the heart of the tri-state area.
The Ludlow Lagoon Amusement Park was a major recreational center for the
Greater Cincinnati area between 1895 and 1920. The park drew thousands with its
large amphitheater, movie theater and vaudeville stage and its abundant
opportunities for swimming, boating and fishing. It was during this heyday that
the city issued porcelain license plates to motorists. No Ludlow plates were
known in the hobby until 2012 when Adam Grupenhof of Cincinatti, Ohio
discovered one while digging for bottles in an old Covington dump. This
discovery made Ludlow the 7th city in Kentucky known to have issued porcelain
license plates and was the first new Kentucky porcelain plate to surface since the
discovery of a 1906-07 Louisville plate 4 1/2 years earlier. In 2017, an eighth city -
Mayfield - also surfaced.
Mayfield is located in Western Kentucky on the Tennessee border. It was
established in the 1820s, and by the mid 19th century, the opening of railroads to
the city brought commerce and industry such as wool and tobacco. In 1910, when
the only known porcelain plate from Mayfield was issued, the city's population had
grown to about 6,000 residents. This unusual plate surfaced in 2017, becoming
the 8th city known from Kentucky to issue porcelain license plates. Like the city
of Lexington, Mayfield is also distinctive as one of only two Kentucky cities not
located on the Ohio River known to have issued porcelains.
An Ohio River town adjacent to Covington, Newport was established in 1975. By
the mid-19th century, the population was only about 1,000 residents, but by 1909,
when the city is known to have first began issuing license plates, the numbers
had soared to more than 30,000. There is only a single known example of these
handsome and distinctive 1909 Newport porcelains. Newport plates are notable
because they are the only surviving examples of city-issued porcelains from
Kentucky in which the state name is spelled out rather than abbreviated (or
absent). The plates are marked by very ornate numbers, reminiscent of the
Covington plates, and may have been produced by the same manufacturer.
Paducah began around 1815 as a mixed community of Native Americans and white
settlers who were attracted by its location at the confluence of many waterways.
Situated in Western Kentucky on the Ohio River bordering Illinois, Paducah was
incorporated as a town in 1830 and offered valuable port facilities for the steam
boats that traversed the river system. A factory for making red bricks, and a
Foundry for making rail and locomotive components became the nucleus of a
thriving River and Rail industrial economy. There were perhaps 20,000 residents
in Paducah when the city is known to have begun issuing porcelain license plates
in 1910. 1911 porcelains were produced as well, although both years are
completely unique in collectors' hands. The high number of the 1911 plate (#644)
makes one wonder why more haven't surfaced.
II: STATE-ISSUED PASSENGER PLATES
In spite of the fact that annual standardized
undated porcelain issues are known from
Kentucky from 1910 through 1913, the
statute books show no record of this. A
March 23rd act of the Kentucky Revised
Statues in 1910 indicated that owners now
had 10 days to register their vehicles with
the Secretary of State in Frankfort after
taking possession of their vehicles, but all
indications are that an owner-provided
plate was still required. The statute books
don’t show evidence of a state issued plate
until the embossed 1914 issue. Unlike most
states, the Kentucky porcelains were good
for a period of one year from the date of
registration. All four years were issued in
No statutory evidence exists that the
Kentucky porcelains were issued in the
"B," "L," "M," "G" sequence, but as plate
expert Conrad Hughson has concluded, the
surviving examples and known numbers
make this a virtual certainty. So, it’s all a bit
speculative, but conventional wisdom
suggests that the “B” plates were issued
beginning in June of 1910 and were good
for a period of one year. Based on known
numbers and archival research, there were
just shy of 3,200 plates issued this first
year. 1911-12 “L” issues followed, with
numbers beginning at #4,001 (perhaps
indicating that the state ordered 4,000 1910
plates, even though it turned out that not that many were actually needed).
Numbers reached at least #8,250, indicating that just over 4,000 pairs of "L" plates
were needed to fulfill the demand - an increase of about 1,000 plates over the
previous year. Interestingly, there are two notable varieties of the "L" plate - one
with a white back and thinner dies like the "B" plates (up to at least #6072), and
the other with a black back and the letter "L" and the circle around it being bolder
and thicker in stroke, more like the "M" plates (starting at least at #7088). Plate
historian Eric Tanner theorizes that these may have been produced by different
“M” plates were issued in 1912-13, and
began once again at #1. There appear to
have been just short of 7,000 registrations
that year. These plates were good until the
last day of June, 1913 - two weeks longer
than any of the previous issues. Eric
Tanner speculates that this may have been
due to difficulties in receiving the new "G"
plates from the manufacturer. Whatever
the reason, the last porcelain issue, the
“G” plate, wasn't issued until July 1 of 1913
and was good until the dated 1914
embossed plates were available the
following year. Interestingly, some
motorists who registered their cars in June
of 1912 and received "M" plates re-registered a year later in June of 1913 and
again got "M" plates because the "G" plates weren't available yet - thus some
motorists skipped the "G" plates altogether. This last porcelain issue is
distinctive for its tri-colored porcelain design - one of very few examples of state-
issued porcelain license plates in which more than two colors was used. There
were about 9,000 pairs of 1913-14 plates issued, with issued numbers reaching
just shy of the 19,000 mark.
The question of just what the "B," "L," "M" and "G" letters on these four plates
represents is one of the most enduring and confounding mysteries in the world of
porcelain license plates.
III: STATE-ISSUED NON-PASSENGER PLATES
From 1910 through 1913, there were no distinct non-passenger porcelains
issued. However, porcelain did briefly make a comeback after the passenger
plates were a thing of the past.
In 1915, the second year of embossed passenger issues from Kentucky, the state
experimented with porcelain motorcycle plates. Perhaps this was in response to
the notoriously flimsy construction of the embossed metal 1914 cycle issues, but
whatever the reason, this experiment lasted precisely one year, as the 1916 cycle
plates were once again made of metal. The decision to manufacture a porcelain
non-passenger plate during a year in which the passenger issue was metal makes
Kentucky extremely unusual, as the only other state to do so was Maryland in 1910
when a porcelain dealer plate was issued. Registration books show that just over
1,400 pairs of motorcycle plates were issued in 1915.
IV: ODDBALL PORCELAINS
There are two surviving porcelain plates from Kentucky that seem to defy
explanation. One of these is a dated 1916 issue in a very similar style to that of
the normal embossed 1916 plate. In fact, there are known 1916 plates with
numbers both higher and lower than the #15468 that appears on the porcelain
variety. Perhaps the most logical explanation for this is that the plate is a
replacement plate that an owner had commissioned to fill in for a lost or damaged
state issue. Alternatively, it could be a salesman’s sample provided to the state
by a company sometime in 1915 by a firm attempting to gain the contract to
produce plates in 1916. In any event, this unique plate is a real oddball.
Similarly, a plate surfaced on EBAY that really makes no sense at all. By all
appearances in terms of color and format with the red stripes across top and
bottom and the red letter at bottom right, this plate is a normal 1913 issue.
However, in this particular case, the red letter in the box is not a “G,” but rather
an “M.” The registration number is well below the highest known 1912 plates, so
it was not manufactured on the 1913 machines in order to rush produce a plate for
a late registrant in 1912. Instead, it gives all appearances of having been
produced in 1912 along with the rest of the “M” plates. And yet, if this were the
case, how would it so accurately predict the layout, size, and appearance of the
1913 issue? Perhaps the makers of the 1912 plates wanted to sell the state on
their idea for a new and more colorful issue to be produced the following year. As
a result, this unique plate may have been manufactured as a sample and bore the
“M” simply because that was the letter in use at the time.
Conrad Hughson, “Kentucky License Plates of the 1910-1914 Era.” ALPCA
Newsletter, 32, 3 (June, 1986), p. 70.
Len Harris, "1908 Louisville: A Different Kind of Horse Race." PLATES, 52, 6
(December, 2006), p. 15.
Robert Rosengarten and Charles Humphrey, “Kentucky – The Bluegrass State.”
ALPCA Newsletter, 32, 3 (June, 1986), pp. 60, 63.
Lexington Herald, February 26, 1909; March 14, 1909; March 1, 1910; April 18, 1910;
May 17, 1910; June 22, 1910; February 26, 1911; March 15, 1911; September 6, 1911;
September 15, 1911; March 31, 1912; May 7, 1912; March 8, 1913
A Website for Porcelain License Plate Collectors & Enthusiasts
||6" x 11"
||6" x 10"
||5 1/2" x 10"
||6" x 10"
||6" x 10"
||6" x 10"
||6" x 10"
|* The 1911-12 issue was manufactured in at least two sizes: 6" x 10" for 3 digit bases and 6" x 12" for 4 digit bases.
||6" x 11"
||6" x 9 1/2"
||6" x 9 1/2"
||5 1/2" x 10 3/4"
||Range: 1 - Approx. 3,200
||5 1/2" x 10 3/4"
||Range: 4,001 - Approx. 8,300
||5 1/2" x 10 3/4"
||Range: 1 - Approx. 6,800
||White/Red & Black
||5 1/2" x 13 1/4"
||Range: 10,001 - Approx. 19,000
||3" x 7 1/2"
||Range: 1 - Approx. 1,450
Note that the Louisville
1910-11 plate is one of only
two city or county issued
porcelains known to have
been manufactured on
variable sized bases
depending on the plate
number. The only other such
plate is the undated
||6" x 15"
||White/Red & Black
||5 1/2" x 13 1/4"
Courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society
|BREAKDOWN OF KENTUCKY PORCELAINS BY YEAR
||#10,001 - #13,393
||#13,394 - Approx. #19,000
||#1 - #3,747
||#3,748 - Approx. #6,800
||#4,001 - #6,940
||#6,941 - Approx. #8,300
** Special thanks for the information in this chart goes to Eric Tanner for his meticulous
research at the Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives in Frankfort
|The earliest known
Covington plate is this
ornate 1909 issue.
|There is no logical
explanation for this flat
painted metal version of a
Covington 1910 - a plate
that is normally porcelain.
||#1 - #2,424
||#2,425 - Approx. #3,200
Courtesy of Mike Duff
|Note that late-issue 1911
Kentucky plates were made
on the new 1912 "M"
bases, with sharp corners,
differently placed slots,
black backs and a distinctly
different die-style in the
numerals - see the
variations above in the
||6" x 12"
||3" x 7"
||5 1/2" x 10"