New Mexico is one of only four states where porcelain license plates were
officially issued, but from which there are no known varieties of porcelain pre-
states or local issues.  The only other such states are Indiana, Minnesota,
Vermont and Wyoming.


Although automobile owners in the Territory of New Mexico had to register their
vehicles as early as 1905, the first officially issued plates did not appear until
after the Territory achieved statehood in 1912.  For the next eight years, New
Mexico issued a series of annual embossed metal plates.  For whatever reason,
the state finally decided to adopt porcelain in 1920.  No other state or province
waited so long before experimenting with porcelain plates.  These plates appear
to have been ordered from the Los Angeles based California Metal Enameling
Company.  This supposition is based on the general similarity of the New Mexico
porcelains with the California 1916-19 issues, as well as the fact that there is
archival newspaper evidence identifying the manufacturer as a Los Angeles
based company.  Indeed, it seems quite reasonable that California Metal
Enameling, which in 1919 was ending its four year contract to provide plates to
the state of California, was looking for a new contract and offered a good deal to
New Mexico.  As it turned out, the plates cost the state 26 cents a piece, plus the
cost of shipping.  The first shipment of 17,520 pounds of plates was en route from
Los Angeles in late November of 1919, finally arriving at the Secretary of State's
office on December 11.  A second order of an additional 5,000 pounds of plates
would come at a later date.  Motorists paid a license fee of between $6 and $20,
depending on the horsepower of the vehicle they owned.

The tabs (or "seals" as they were referred to at the time) on New Mexico
porcelains did not have to match the number of the plates like they did in
California, but whenever a car was newly registered, rather then re-registered,
the tabs did in fact match.  The New Mexico porcelains were Issued as singles
only, to be displayed on the rear of the vehicle, and there were 17,720 plates
issued in the first year.  It is notable that around plate #23,000, the "1920"
designation was dropped as it was no longer needed and probably saved the
state a couple of cents.  Interestingly, not all motorists dutifully registered their
cars and received plates.  In May of 1922, newspapers printed a warning from the
Secretary of State that motorists still driving with their 1921 tabs would be liable
to arrest.  And in June of 1923, the State Comptroller published an open letter to
police officers in local newspapers.  In the letter, he estimated that 35-40% of
motor vehicles in New Mexico still carried no 1923 plates, and that the state was
consequently deprived of some $100,000 in revenue as a result.  Police officers
were urged to be more vigilant about enforcing this violation of the law.  It should
be noted that part of this problem was due to the fact that the Comptroller's office
had taken over the responsibility of collecting motor vehicle licenses from the
Secretary of State's office beginning in April and that the Comptroller was working
through a major backlog of more than 7,000 applications and had hired extra staff
in an effort to bring everybody up to date on their registrations and the issuance
of new plates and tabs.  Nonetheless, many automobile owners simply attempted
to skirt the law.

One interesting porcelain mystery surrounds the reason why 1923 plates
beginning around #47,500 were issued without the three holes for the tab.  New
Mexico expert Bill Johnston theorizes that by the time these plates were issued
very late in 1923, the state had already decided it was not going to be using
porcelains in 1924, and thus chose to save a bit of money by directing the
manufacturer not to bother drilling the holes, as no tabs would ever be needed.  
As for those couple thousand New Mexico motorists who registered in the
closing months of 1923, they were simply issued plates without holes and without
the yellow star emblem either (or at least with no requirement to display it).  Law
enforcement officials could have easily been instructed not to bother motorists
driving vehicles with high-numbered, tab-less plates.

Like the California plates from 1916-1919, the intent of the dated 1920 base was to
remain valid for the next five years, revalidated each year with the issuance of a
new tab (a red diamond in 1921, a silver octagon in 1922, and a yellow star in
1923).  However, after years of success with this system, when the time came to
order the 1924 plates, the state chose to revert to a metal issue rather than use
porcelains for the fifth consecutive year as originally intended.  As the "Santa Fe
New Mexican" explained this decision, the use of the metal revalidation tabs was
found to be unsatisfactory.  "In the first place," reported the paper, "license
dodging was hard to detect - a constable or 'cop' had almost to sneak up on an
auto before he could tell whether it had this year's or last year's seal affixed to
the plate.  Besides, it was found, they could be readily transferred from one auto
to another with but a minimum of risk of discovery."  In fact, as early as December
of 1922, the Secretary of State's biennial report noted that the semi-permanent
porcelains had become impracticable and that a return to annual dated metal
issues was needed.  Another problem was the growing theft of the date tabs.  
According to the "New Mexican," "applications for duplicate seals from persons
who have previously paid their 1923 fees are coming into Comptroller R.H.
Carter's office practically every day.  In most cases, the writers simply say their
seals are gone; what became of them they don't know.  Their frequency, however,
has led Mr. Carter to believe he 'smells a rat.'"

All of these factors combined to sound the death knell for the era of New Mexican
porcelains and the state issued its final porcelains in late 1923 - the last state-
issued porcelain license plates to be issued anywhere in the U.S. until the
Delaware porcelains nearly 20 years later.



Dealer plates were manufactured in a very interesting layout.  The designation
“DEALERS LICENSE” is written across the top in letters nearly as large as the
plate number itself.  To accommodate this writing, the standard New Mexico
porcelain base had to be lengthened half an inch and heightened by an inch and
a quarter.  Also notable is the fact that the number is squeezed way to the left,
followed by the attached date tab just left of center, leaving a substantial amount
of seemingly wasted space to the right.  In truth, the 1913 Laws of New Mexico
required that dealers write their names in this space.  This requirement
presumably still existed in the porcelain era, although no surviving examples
bear any writing on the right side.  Newspaper articles in 1919 indicate that dealer
plates were to be carried on the rear of vehicles being used for demonstration
purposes only.  Furthermore, a separate license had to be taken out in every city
where that dealer had a business office, although they were only to be used on
one car of each make sold.  If more than one car of a given make was being
demonstrated, the others had to carry a regular owner's license.  This
interpretation of the statute offered by the Attorney General was aimed at
curtailing the abuse of dealers who paid a single dealer's license and operated
numerous vehicles for that single fee.  Starting in 1920, dealerships paid a
license fee of $25 for the first plate and could order extra plates for a cost of $5

Based on the fact that state-issued New Mexico dealer plates in the same general
format were issued beginning in 1916 (1913-1915 dealers were owner-provided),
it seems virtually certain that porcelain dealer plates began in 1920 and went all
the way through.  That notwithstanding, only a single 1921 and a few 1923s have
survived with what appear to be original tabs.  It is notable that while the known
1921 plate has a non-matching tab, at least one 1923 dealer carries a matching
tab.  This suggests that dealer plate followed the same rule as the passenger
issues - namely that new registrations received matching tabs, while re-
registrants received tabs that did not match.  One important point to make is that
authentic dealer porcelains carried tabs which differed from the passenger tabs
in two important respects - they had engraved numerals as opposed to embossed
ones, and bore a "D" prefix instead of being all numeric.  Numerous surviving
dealer porcelains carry passenger tabs for display purposes, even though such
tabs were never in fact used on these plates.  New Mexico dealer plates are
extremely difficult to find and were issued in very small numbers.  In fact, all
known examples have numbers below 300.


A second variety of non-passenger porcelain is a Highway Department plate,
reading “HWY” stacked over “DEPT” at left, followed by the plate number and
finally the date tab toward the far right of the plate.  This is the only example of a
porcelain plate from any state or year with a Highway Department designation.  
Unlike the dealer porcelains, it is unclear when this rare class of porcelain was
first issued.  The only known year dates to 1923, which may or may not have been
the first year of issuance.   Like the tabs on dealer plates, Highway Department
porcelains were issued with engraved numerals on the tab, as opposed to the
embossed numerals that passenger plates carried.  However, they carried no
letter prefix.  Thus, the only way to distinguish a true Highway Department tab
from a passenger issue would be by the engraved serial number.  Also like other
classes of New Mexico porcelains, they appear to have been issued matching
tabs when newly registered.  #39 pictured below carries a matching tab,
suggesting that it was a new registration.  If this is a correct supposition, and
such a low number was first registered in 1923, then it may well be true that
Highway Department porcelains as a class began later than passengers and
dealers - perhaps in 1922 or 1923.  

These plates are exceptionally rare.  I have seen photos of five examples, only
two of which appear to have their original tabs still attached.  Numbers range to
just over #300.  One mysterious characteristic of New Mexico Highway
Department porcelains is the fact that the lower numbered examples were
produced on bases with small slot holes at the top only.  All passenger porcelains
from New Mexico carried much longer slots on both the top and the bottom, and
beginning by at least #200, the Highway Department bases were modified to
match as well.  So why was a specialized base produced for low-numbered
Highway Department porcelains?  Was this a mistake that was caught and
corrected?  Was it an effort on the part of the state to save some money by
ordering simpler plates for its state-owned vehicles?  For now, the true answer
remains a mystery.


Curved porcelain motorcycle plates were issued beginning in 1920, with
motorcyclists paying a license fee of $3.  Like the California porcelain cycle
plates, these are curved both top to bottom as well as left to right.  There is only
one of these incredibly rare cycle plates known, but the fact that it is dated 1920
and bears evidence that a tab was once attached, strongly suggests that these
plates were used throughout the tab years.  


Michael C. Wiener, “New Mexico – Land of Enchantment.”  ALPCA Newsletter, 33,
3 (June, 1987), pp. 69-72.

The Deming Headlight, May 30, 1919; November 21, 1919; January 2, 1920; May 12,
1922; June 8, 1923; July 20, 1923
The Gallup Independent, December 11, 1919
The Rio Grande Farmer (Las Cruces), June 14, 1923
The Santa Fe New Mexican, May 19, 1919; November 14, 1919; November 26, 1919;
May 24, 1922; December 29, 1922; April 27, 1923; May 12, 1923; August 22, 1923;
October 26, 1923

A Website for Porcelain License Plate Collectors & Enthusiasts
New Mexico Archive
4 1/2" x 14 1/2"
Range: 1 - Approx. 18,000
Blue/White (red diamond)
4 1/2" x 14 1/2"
Range: 1 - Approx. 28,500
Blue/White (silver octagon)
4 1/2" x 14 1/2"
Range: 1 - Approx. 32,500
Blue/White (yellow star)
4 1/2" x 14 1/2"
Range: 1 - Approx. 50,000
Blue/White (red diamond)
5 3/4" x 14 3/4"
Range: Unknown
Blue/White (yellow star)
5 3/4" x 14 3/4"
Range: ??? - Approx. 300
10" x 3 1/2"
Range: 1 - Approx. 400
Blue/White (yellow star)
4 1/2" x 14 1/2"
Range: 1 - Approx. 350
Headline about the high
number of motorists in
1923 who failed to register
and obtain their plates as
required by law

The Deming Headlight,
July 20, 1923
The Santa Fe New Mexican, November 14, 1919
Headline about the
massive new order of New
Mexico porcelain license

The Santa Fe New Mexican
November 26, 1919
It is interesting to note that porcelain New
Mexico bases come in three minor variations,
as pictured at left.  The first 23,000 or so
plates carried a "1920" designation and bore 3
holes for re-validation tabs.  The next 24,000
plates dropped the date, but retained the
holes.  And the final 2,500 or so plates were
issued without the date or the tab holes.
Headline about the misuse
of 1923 tabs and the
consequent decision to
abandon porcelain in favor
of a metal 1924 issue

The Santa Fe New Mexican,
August 22, 1923
Note the difference between
a regular embossed
passenger tab (top) and an
engraved  dealer tab
Note the unusually small
top slots and complete
lack of bottom slots on the
low-numbered Highway
Department porcelains.  
These first 200 or so plates
are the only New Mexico
porcelains to boast such
unusual features.
Highway Department
Slot Hole Variations