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Virginia Archive


City plates from Virginia are extremely scarce, with only four known varieties.  The
only dated example is a plate from Clifton Forge marked 1914, which suggests
that these city plates were probably not issued in the pre-state era.  The other
plates – porcelain issues from Graham, Newport News, and Roanoke – are all
undated and are presumed to date somewhere from the 1910-1914 era.


Located in Alleghany County near the West Virginia border, Clifton Forge is a
small town situated on the Jackson River, whose fortune closely followed the
development and expansion of the railroad industry in the mid to late 1800s.  It
became an important maintenance facility for steam locomotives of the
Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad.  Although its history goes back to the eighteenth
century, the town itself was chartered in 1906, the same year Virginia issued its
first plates.  In 1914, the city issued its only known porcelain license plates.  
These plates were ordered from the Baltimore Enamel & Novelty Company and
bear that company's oval seal on the reverse.  There are just a few surviving
examples of these elusive red plates, marked with a stacked "CF" prefix denoting
the town name.  Dated 1914, the Clifton Forge porcelains are the only dated
porcelain city plates from Virginia.


Nestled in the heights of the Appalachian Mountains along the Southern border
of West Virginia, Graham dates back to the early 1860s, although it was originally
called Harman.  It was coal mining and the attendant construction of the Norfolk &
Western Railway that really brought the town to prominence.  In 1924, the town,
now named Graham, renamed itself to Bluefield in an effort to capitalize on the
economic prominence of nearby Bluefield, West Virginia.  Some time before this
change, however, Graham issued distinctive porcelain city plates.  There are two
known surviving examples of Graham plates, with numbers reaching the low
200s.  Three notable features distinguish these plates from other Virginia city
issues.  For one, the Graham plates are the only locally-issued porcelains from
Virginia to carry a state designation, in this case the abbreviation "VA."  Secondly,
they are the only plates to spell out the city name in full, as all other porcelain city
plates use only the city abbreviation.  Finally, whereas the other three known
varieties of Virginia porcelain city plates are white on red, the Graham plates
buck the trend with their black and white color scheme.


Located on the Southeastern end of the Virginia Peninsula, on the North shore of
the James River, Newport News dates back to the early 17th century.  After the
Civil War, railroad development made the city an important economic hub.  In the
latter part of the 19th century, the Newport news Shipping and Drydock Company
was created, which would become the world’s largest shipyard, producing
numerous warships for the U.S. Navy. In the first decade of the 20th century, the
city’s population hovered around the 20,000 mark.  Between 1910 and 1920,
however, the population would jump by more than 15,000.  Sometime during this
population explosion, it seems, Newport News issued an undated white and red
porcelain city plate, marked only by a stacked "NN" suffix indicating its
jurisdiction of origin.  There are two known examples in collections today of these
rare porcelain plates.


The first settlers explored the Roanoke Valley region in the 17th century, but
much of it remained unsettled for quite some time.  By the middle of the 18th
century, farming was being undertaken in the Valley and communities began to
spring up.  Towns formed within what is now the city of Roanoke in the first
decades of the 19th century. By the 1880s, the city of Roanoke was now formed.  
Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the middle of the Roanoke Valley
between Maryland and Tennessee, the city was in an advantageous spot to
become an important commercial and railroad center.  Reminiscent of the
Newport News plates in size and color, there are four known surviving examples
of Roanoke's only porcelain license plates.  These plates are known with numbers
into the low 200s, and bear the license number followed by a thin dash and the
suffix "RKE."  

One interesting aspect of the Roanoke porcelains is that of the four surviving
examples, at least one carries the hand-writtten date coding system of the
Baltimore Enamel & Novelty Company on the reverse.  These codes indicate the
month and year that a plate was manufactured and in this case, plate #143 bears
the code "19," indicating that it was produced in January of 1909.  This is
intriguing for a number of different reasons.  For one, this code provides us with
evidence as to the date these undated plates were used.  The fact that these
plates were produced on the 9th of January suggests that they were not needed
until some time later in the year.  Perhaps Roanoke's fiscal year commenced in
the spring or summer, indicating that these porcelain plates can probably be most
accurately described as 1909-10 issues.  Secondly, the fact that later numbered
examples in the 200s bear no mark on the reverse suggests that Roanoke
porcelains were probably produced in two batches.  One might speculate that the
city's first order called for 200 plates, which were produced on January 9.  Then,
later in the year when this allotment ran out, a second small batch of perhaps 50
or so plates was ordered from Baltimore Enamel which were produced with blank
white backs.  This makes some degree of sense, as the hand-written date coding
system used by Baltimore Enamel, which had been in place since 1904, was
phased out in mid to late 1909.  Thus, when the second order was received, this
coding system was likely already obsolete.

It should come as no big shock that these plates were produced by Baltimore
Enamel.  Not only did that company have a long history of supplying porcelains to
local municipalities throughout the U.S., but it had also held the Virginia state
license plate contract since 1906.  However, the fact that the early versions bear
Baltimore Enamel's coding system is quite unusual.  In fact, the early Roanoke
issue joins the Philadelphia 1906 passenger, the Philadelphia 1908 vendor and
the Louisville, KY and Mobile, AL 1909 plates as one of only five known city issues
to feature the company's unique date coding system.


Approved March 17, 1906, the first law licensing and taxing automobiles in
Virginia went into effect in June.  For a fee of $2.00, vehicle owners received an
undated first issue plate which was permanent as long as the vehicle was
operated.  There were 750 license plates sold the first year.  By the time the last
first issue Virginias were issued, numbers reached nearly 4,600.  In fact, although
typically thought of as 1906-09 plates, the Virginia first issues were actually good
through the first half of 1910.  Only in June were the new 1910 plates first used on
cars. Thus, these undated plates were on the road for a full four years.

There are two very distinct varieties of first issue Virginia plates – the earlier
years has a small “VA.” at bottom right, about half the height of the numerals.  In
the later years, this designation was still the same size, but was now centered at
the right, rather than lined up along the bottom row of the numerals.  
Furthermore, the period after the designation “VA” was square in the early
versions, but turned into an oval dot in the later ones.  Later plates were also
slightly larger than the 1906 versions and had manufacturer’s names on the
reverse.  Both the Baltimore Enamel and Novelty Company and the Ingram-
Richardson Company of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania manufactured the first issue
Virginias.  These same two companies continued to make the VA porcelain plates
through 1913.

In 1910, a new act approved March 17
increased the license fees to between
$5.00 and $20.00, depending on the
advertised horse power of the automobile.  
Effective on June 15, 1910, this act made
the license annual, rather than permanent,
ushering in the era of yearly, dated issues.  
1910 plates expired on December 31st, and
were thus only on vehicles for six months.  
According to Garriques and MacMeccan,
there were 2,704 plates issued during this
time.  These 1910 plates were manufactured
by the Baltimore Enamel & Novelty
Company.  Beginning in 1911, plates were
changed to calendar year issues and nearly
4,000 seem to have been issued.  In 1912,
pairs of porcelains were issued for the first time, as all prior issues were singles
only, and Andrew Pang and Tom Smith's census of known Virginia porcelains
show that 1912 plates reached well into the 5700s.  Interestingly, the 1911 and
1912 plates began at #101 for passenger cars.  The first 100 numbers were
reserved for a dealer class.  According to the Washington Post, there were 9,022
licenses issued in 1913, Virginia’s final year of porcelain plates.



In 1910, Dealer plates were assigned the
first 100 numbers of the passenger series,
but had no distinguishing characteristics
denoting their status as dealer plates
other than the number.  In 1911 and 1912,
the numbering system was changed.  
Although the plates were still assigned the
first 100 numbers, they were now marked
with a “D” prefix.  Otherwise, they retained
the same size and color scheme of the
passenger plates.  Interestingly, since
dealerships could have duplicate plates,
there is a pair of 1911 dealers known in a
year that passenger plates were only
issued as singles.  In 1913, the system was
changed so that passenger vehicles now
received licenses beginning at #1 and no
separate number sequence was reserved for dealers.  Instead, dealer plates
simply carried the "D" prefix.  This change may have been made when it became
apparent that dealers would surpass the 100 mark for the first time.  Indeed, 1913
dealers are known up to at least #D129.


When Virginia enacted the Motor Vehicle Law of 1910, not only did the new law
provide for annual renewal of automobile registrations, but it also provided, for
the first time, for the registration of motorcycles.  There were 234 motorcycle
plates issued by the state in 1910, although none is known to exist.  1911 cycles
are nearly as rare, with only three surviving examples in collectors' hands.  From
1910-1913, motorcycle plates were porcelain just like their passenger
counterparts, and were also the same color.   However, they bear one very
distinct difference – they were curved from top to bottom to fit the shape of a
motorcycle’s fender.  By 1911, motorcycle registrations had topped 400 and in
1913, numbers are known into the low 1000s.


David L. Garriques, Sr. and Robert M. MacMeccan, Jr., “The Commonwealth of
Virginia.”  ALPCA Newsletter, 34, 3 (June, 1988), pp. 64-73.

The Washington Post, June 14, 1914.

For a survey of known
Virginia porcelains, check
out the following links:

VA First Issues

1910 VA plates

1911 VA plates

1912 VA plates

1913 VA plates
5 1/2" x 10"
4" x 10"
4" x 10"
5 1/2" x 11"
Range: 1 - Approx. 2700
5 1/2" x 11"
Range: 100 - Approx. 4000*
5 1/2" x 11"
Range: 100 - Approx. 5800*
5 1/2" x 11"
Range: 1 - Approx. 9022
* Note that the first 100 numbers were assigned to dealers.
5 1/2" x 11"
Range: D1 - D99
5 1/2" x 11"
Range: D1 - D99
5 1/2" x 11"
Range: D1 - Approx. D130
8" x 3"
Range: Estimated 1 - 450
8" x 3"
Range: Estimated 1 - 500
8" x 3"
Range: Estimated 1 - 1050
White/Black, Type 1
5" x 11"
Range: 1 - Approx. 2000
White/Black, Type 2
5" x 11"
Range: Estimated 2001 - 4599

Note that one and two digit
cycles had the numerals
centered.  Only when plate
numbers reached three and
four digits were the
numerals diagonally
staggered for readability
Virginia 1912
Courtesy of Mike Duff
Note the distinctive
hand-written date coding
system of the early Roanoke
porcelains, indicating that
they were manufactured by
the Baltimore Enamel &
Novelty Company in
January of 1909
Virginia 1911 Dealer