A Website for Porcelain License Plate Collectors & Enthusiasts
Washington Archive


Although Washington was the second Western state to register automobiles, and
had a pre-state period that lasted from 1905 to 1915, there are no known
examples of owner provided plates made of porcelain.  The only pre-state
porcelains known from Washington are 1914 and 1915 plates issued by the city of
Seattle for commercial vehicles.  Other than these two plates, the only other non
state-provided porcelain is a small Log Truck issue dating to about the 1940s.


Located between Puget Sound and Lake Washington, Seattle is the largest city in
the Pacific Northwest.  Although the region had been inhabited for thousands of
years, White settlement did not begin until the middle of the 19th century.  The
Klondike Gold Rush of 1896 made Seattle the main transport and supply point for
those heading north in search of fortune and this economic boom lasted well into
the early part of the 20th century.  A boom business in ship building would follow,
helping to maintain Seattle's regional prominence at the time when license plates
were first hitting the roads.  In fact, there were a quarter-million inhabitants in the
city when commercial vehicles first began to be licensed, bearing the designation
"Seattle Vehicle License."  It is not clear when these licenses were first issued,
but an embossed brass version is known as early as 1912.  In 1914 and 1915, the
city switched to porcelain plates, now marked "S.V. License."  These plates are
quite rare, although numbers of the 1915 plates are known to reach nearly 1,300.


The Westernmost city on Puget Sound, Shelton is the county seat of Mason
County.  Mason County's economic structure was largely built upon the logging
industry. Lumber mills quickly followed as logging commenced.  Adding to local
prosperity were the miles of rail laid by the region's logging and lumber
interests.  Farming, fishing and the oyster business were other burgeoning
industries in the region's early history.  Shelton had grown into a fair-sized city by
1888 and the city's economy was largely built around the logging industry, which
has always dominated the landscape of the downtown area.  Not surprisingly, the
only porcelain plates known from Shelton adorned logging trucks and are marked
"Member, Local 38, IW of A."  These were probably issued to truck drivers by the
union, rather than being official city-issued plates.  A number of un-issued
examples of these plates turned up around 2004, all of which bear numbers in the
#1 - #50 range.  These undated yellow plates have flat, unblemished backs and
are reminiscent of more modern plates - probably dating to the '40s or even '50s.


Washington first began issuing
standardized license plates in 1916 with a
large white & blue embossed issue.  It
wasn't until 1919, however, that the state
experimented with porcelain.  This was
extremely late for any state to be using
porcelain license plates, and in fact, the
only state to continue using porcelain
license plates after Washington was New
Mexico.  The 1918-19 Washington plates
had been designed with six perforations
around the date so that they could be
revalidated for 1919-20 with a square
porcelain tab.  All re-registrants got these
tabs to fit onto their old plates.  These
black and white tabs were shipped up from
Los Angeles where they were being manufactured under contract with the
California Metal Enameling Company, the same company that was producing the
California porcelains at the time.  However, if a motorist was registering his or her
vehicle for the first time in 1919, they got handsome new porcelain license plates
which were intended to mimic the physical appearance of the newly re-validated
embossed plates.  

Although these plates are dated 1920 and are commonly thought of as 1920
issues, they are, in fact, 1919-1920 plates that were on the road from March 1,
1919 through February 29, 1920.  Just like the re-validation tabs, the full
porcelains were made by California Metal Enameling as well.  About 15,000 of
these large, tri-colored porcelains were issued with numbers from approximately
#145,000 to #160,000.  Their tri-colored format of Washington porcelains is actually
quite distinctive, as the only other examples of state-issued porcelains with more
than two colors are the Kentucky 1913 with its distinctive red striping, as well as
the Wyoming 1916 and Michigan 1913 & 1914 plates, which had black state seals in
addition to the two colors of porcelain.  For some reason - perhaps it was the cost
of this fancy multi-colored embellishment - these plates were short lived, as the
state of Washington abandoned this issuance of full porcelains at some point in
favor of embossed metal plates.


In 1919-20, a number of non-passenger varieties were also issued. These various
classes of plates are designated with a letter prefix before the date. Whereas the
passenger plates read "X-20," the following non-passenger types are also known:
"A" for autos for hire; "C" for trailers; "E" for exempt; "H" for truck for hire; "S" for
stage (bus); and "T" for truck. But although these plates were issued, they do not
all appear to have been issued on the full porcelain base.  In fact, only Exempts,
Trucks and Trailers are known on the full porcelain base.  Dealer plates were also
issued, carrying no prefix whatsoever, and I've heard rumors that such plates
exist in full porcelain, but cannot verify this claim.  Note that for the purposes of
this archive, non-passenger varieties that are known on the porcelain tabs only,
but not on the full porcelain base, are not counted as collectible porcelain
varieties.  Unlike all of these other non-passenger plates, all of which follow the
same general pattern of the passenger plates, the motorcycle plates in 1919-20
were much simpler and smaller black and white plates. These were issued in
pairs and came in both passenger and dealer varieties.


In 2016, five same-numbered full porcelain dealer plates were dug up.  These
were a surprise to plate collectors, because no dealer plates had ever been seen
before on the full porcelain base.  Interestingly, these plates are taller than the
rest of the porcelain Washington plates so that the word "DEALER" could be fit in
above the plate number.  This same enlarged height for dealers would also hold
true for the Motorcycle Dealer plates.


One surviving example of an E-prefixed exempt plate is known to document the
fact that this class of plate was manufactured on the full-porcelain base.


Pairs of motorcycle plates were issued in 1919-20 and ran from #1 up through
approximately #4,000.  Expiring in 1920, these are the last porcelain motorcycle
plates issued in the U.S. or Canada.  Unlike the large Washington porcelains,
cycle plates are known with the stamp of the California Metal Enameling Company
on the reverse.


Although produced in the same general format as the regular cycle plates,
Motorcycle Dealer porcelains had the one interesting characteristic of having the
year designation "1920" on them.  All other Washington state-issued porcelains
have only "20" with or without a letter prefix on them.  These plates are
impossibly rare and I have only ever seen the single example pictured below.


"C" prefixed trailer plates were unknown on the full porcelain base until 2012
when the one pictured below showed up on EBAY.  As far as I know, this is the
only surviving example.


This class of plate was used for trucks and other commercial vehicles.  The
numbers on these plates appear to have been isolated from the low 140,000s to
the low 150,000s and were apparently the most numerous of the various types of
plates that were allotted that number block.


Alan Betts, “License Plates of Washington: The Evergreen State.”  ALPCA
Register, 47, 6 (December, 2001), pp. 9-21

The Centralia Daily Chronicle, January 18, 1919; August 2, 1919; January 24, 1920;
February 21, 1920
3 1/2" x 6 1/4"
3 1/2" x 6 1/4"
3 1/2" x 8"
Black/Yellow & White
5 1/4" x 14"
Range: Approx. 145,000 - 160,000
4" x 7"
Range: 1 - Approx. 4,000
Black/Yellow & White
5 1/4" x 14"
Range: Approx. 140,000 - 145,000
4" x X"
Range: ???
Examples of non-passenger
license plate classes
(Dealer, For Hire, Exempt,
Stage and Truck) that
appear on porcelain
revalidation tabs.  Some of
these are still unknown on
the full-porcelain base.
Type 1: Embossed 1918-19
plate with porcelain
re-validation tab
Type 3: Painted embossed
metal issued after the full
porcelains ran out
Washington 1919-20 (Type 1)
Black/Yellow & White
5 1/4" x 14"
Range: Approx. ???
Black/Yellow & White
5 1/4" x 14"
Range: ???
Black/Yellow & White
5 1/4" x 14"
Range: ???