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The Pioneer Era: 1905-1915

The first law governing the registration of motor vehicles in Delaware appeared in 1905. This law, effective April of that year, specified only the broad characteristics of a single required 'marker' for the rear of the vehicle, indicating "Arabic numerals not less than three inches in height, the strokes to be of a width not less than three-eighths of an inch". There has been a widely held belief among collectors that the letter 'D' was required on these first 'owner-provided' tags, since all known surviving specimens have this feature, however, nowhere within the text of the law can this be substantiated. There was also no provision for an expiration date for the 1905 era registrations. Additionally, non-residents spending more than 48 hours in the State were required to register their vehicles under the 1905 law.

Effective April 1907, the law was amended to require two tags, with a larger, 5-inch number height, and most significantly, the "abbreviated name of the state and the year" were to be added. This law also was changed to specify that all registrations would expire on December 31st, regardless of date of issue. This was still the 'pre-state' era, however, as no tags were provided by the State.

Actual surviving specimens of plates from the 'pre-state' era are few and far between, and those known are as diverse in construction as such plates can be. At present count, this writer has confirmed the existence of a mere 15 examples. Most are variations of the metal-number on leather-pad style. Two 2- digit examples of brass numbers on leather, with 'D' over the date '1907', both in stitched leather, exist. Several of the dated variety (1907-09) were professionally made by the Horace Fine Co. of Trenton, NJ and are so marked on their aluminum backs, faced with large bold metal numbers affixed to leather. A pair of white-on-cobalt blue porcelains exist in separate locations; these dated '1907' plates have an ALPCA pedigree all their own, being once part of the renowned Tony Shupienus and then Vern Streiffert collections. John Anshant owns a very suspicious flat piece of painted metal with 'D' followed by number 136, possibly authentic. Several vehicle owners simply painted their Delaware number on the back of Pennsylvania porcelains of the same year. This served a dual purpose due to differences in the states' laws, the limited reciprocity, and the proximity of the heavily populated regions of both states. These 'border' plates would possibly be more common were it not for the poor paint adhesion to the porcelain base. A once choice 1908 example that presently hangs in Lee Hartung's dirt floor 'museum' in suburban Chicago is now badly deteriorated due to flaking paint. It is not surprising that these early plates are scarce, as various reported registration figures for 1905 indicate less than 200 vehicles on the books, and by early 1909 the total still had not reached four figures. It is important to remember that the 'pre-state' era extended into 1909. It wasn't until April of that year that the State began providing a standardized pair of plates.

The first of Delaware's annually dated license plate issues, 1909, has a mystique all its own. For a time in the early years of ALPCA, these 8 1/2" x 6 1/2" white on black porcelain plates were argued to be 'pre- states'. Since about three were known at that time, and dated 1909 leathers were also known, who was to dispute the evidence? Today, there are still less than 30 documented specimens of this scarce plate, and a significant percentage of the survivors are 'dogs', less than choice condition, having been recovered from dump fires and other ignominious forms of interment. Count yourself among an exclusive group if you own one; this plate is consistently rated among the "ten most difficult" U.S. state issues and, barring a major exhumation at the old City of Wilmington landfill, is likely to remain on the elusive list for some time. Partly the scarcity can be attributed to the fact that the law authorizing their production did not take effect until April of that year. By that time, many vehicle owners would have registered their vehicles under the 'owner-provided' 1907 tag law. Because of the overlap of these two laws, there are no low number porcelain 1909 plates. The highest known 'pre-state' number is 984, on a linen-coated silk- screened cardboard tag that is very similar in appearance and size to the porcelain plates, except it is the reverse color combination. This is perhaps a 'temporary' plate for an owner awaiting the arrival of the shipment of the State's new porcelain tags; in all likelihood we will never know. The lowest known number for the porcelain 1909 issues is 1071; the highest, 1438. Surviving records indicate all numbers over 1500 were reserved for dealer's class; no plates are known in this category until 1910, although it is delineated in the laws from 1907. A little known fact of the porcelain 1909 plates manufactured by The Horace Fine Co. is that they were produced in three separate batches, resulting in three distinct varieties. The first and third are very similar, with superficial differences; the second batch has much narrower legend 'DEL. 1909' at the top, and the strap slots are longer and narrower. Only two plates of this variety are accounted for.

By 1910, Delaware's registration system was well established, and few variations occur. There are two minor stencil variations in the digits of both 1910 and 1912 plates; two distinct varieties of 1913 and 1914 plates exist, and high-numbered 1915 plates have black backs as opposed to the white backs on the lower numbers. There is a significant increase in plate survival from 1910 onward. The registration figures remained low, not reaching four digits until 1911, and remaining well under 5000 in 1915. These 'early' porcelains are colorful, attractive, and sought after by collectors today. A few more appear each year from their hiding places. This hobbyist has been recording numbers on surviving specimens of Delaware porcelains (among others) for more than 25 years. At last count, over 700 plates of combined years 1909-1915 have been documented. This includes all recognizable conditions, and in reality it is not very many plates, not enough to satisfy the demand of today's active, enthusiastic, and well financed plate hobby.

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