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Collecting Delaware Plates: The Scene Today

It is doubtful there is another U.S. state with a higher "license plate consciousness" than the tiny State of Delaware. Folks everywhere in this small geopolitical area are aware that low digits bring high dollars, that old black tags can be reused, and that there is a market for dusty, rusted relics found in the back of a barn. Delaware is a history-conscious state that is undergoing rapid, irreversible changes in these final years of a tumultuous century. During most of this time, the character of the state has largely been rural and agricultural, its pace slow and leisurely, as befits an area of cornfields and modest vacation resorts. This history, and this pace, is quite clearly reflected in the state's license plates- the anachronistic porcelain, eagerly sought after by those too young to remember their origin, the basic blue issues that have remained essentially unchanged for more than 30 years. Curiously, the hobby of plate collecting is not well-developed in Delaware, in spite of the state once being the site of an ALPCA national (1959, at the now-defunct Yorklyn Gun Club) and being home to one of ALPCA's more famous charter members. If it were not for the early collecting efforts of Tom Chilton, ALPCA-25, Jim Fox may not have been able to publish the state-run photos in his book. Interest in Delaware's plates is certainly not a recent phenomenon, what is new is the emphasis on high finance, the ruthlessness, lack of character and just plain greed of some of the in-state, and out-of state, plate chasers, and the scarcity of quality material. The state has periodically been saturated with misleading newspaper ads offering outrageous prices. Folks who answer the ads often find that what they have is not quite what the advertiser wanted, and thus is worth only a fraction of the advertised price. The same items when they appear on a table at a meet will be unaffordable to the average collector. Of course Delaware is not unique in having been exposed to this phenomenon. But in a state as small and concentrated as this one is, a mere 99 miles from top to bottom, a place where one can visit the entire state and all its antique shops in a couple of weekends, the result is that word gets around, asking prices for even the common items go up, or they are held more tightly, and all collectors are put in the same class as the "vultures" that decent folks have sometimes encountered through newspaper ads and so forth. In order for a hobby to flourish, there must be access to the items collected (in our case, plates) and folks interested in acquiring and preserving them. Combined with its small size, the simple fact that Delaware has not had a general reissue of its plates since 1942- more than 50 years! -has served well to limit the availability of plates to collect. In the 1950's one could pick Pennsylvania plates (and Ohio, and Maryland, etc....) out of the alleyways and from behind gas stations by the armload. Not so with Delaware! There were plenty of plates on cars in Delaware junkyards (still are) but getting in with bag and screwdriver in hand was - and is- a challenge and an adventure, not always successful. The Motor Vehicle Department in Dover has a long history of being friendly and helpful to collectors, providing information as well as sample plates and expired stickers at nominal cost. As for older pre-war plates, finds today mostly include single plates, small groups from old family estates, rusty barn "tin" and construction-site discoveries, often in deplorable condition. There are exceptions. But all of the major old ALPCA collections in the state - those put together by Tom Chilton, Frank Brittingham, Harvey Luyster, Pat McCann, etc., have long since changed hands. Coleman Stoops, a relative newcomer to ALPCA (#3064) but a collector since the late 40's, sold his entire collection in 1965 to finance his daughter's college education-! Newer interest within the state is mostly casual, opportunistic (buying what shows up at local sales) and low budget. Nowhere in the state can one view anything close to a comprehensive collection, or even a complete passenger run. There was rumored to be a State collection on display years ago, but this hobbyist has never been able to track it down. Meanwhile, the hunt goes on for the missing items in the one truly comprehensive collection that does exist, presently located three miles into the nearby state of Pennsylvania. And Roy Carson's terminology in the original 1474 Newsletter article on Delaware plates describing collecting this state as "delightful but difficult" is still completely appropriate today.

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