In many respects, the history of vehicle registration plates resembles that of street signs and house numbers. It begun with family emblems on the doors of first automobiles owned by wealthy aristocracy and it quickly transformed into the countless signs and marks expressing the joy of owning a motor vehicle, or into straightforward business advertisement of the vehicle’s owner. However, at the turn of 19th and 20th century in some European and American cities, the numbers of automobiles increased so sharply that it became necessary to distinguish them not only by the imagination of their owners, but also by an organised system. The authorities had similar experience when previously, bikes spread rapidly, so a decision was made that it will be necessary to register everything powered by an engine which was operated on a public road.

Paris the pioneer
The town hall of Paris appears to be the world pioneer in this respect. From 1891, it required a driving certificate, and starting in August 1893, this requirement has been extended to a metal plate, which, in “regular lettering”, stated the name and address of the owner. In today’s words, a doubleline registration plate in recommended type. The clerks were practical and decided that the plate was to be black with white lettering. Black was the most common colour of automobiles then and the license plate was not to disturb the appearance of the vehicle. In comparison, as late as in 1901, the U.S. metropolis of New York only required handwritten initials of the owner, and it was in 1903 when Connecticut and Massachusetts introduced the first registration plates. First, these were made of leather or wood with rivet-attached letters, enamel plates appeared later.

Austro-Hungarian Empire
In Czech lands and Moravia, so-called evidence numbers were introduced in January 1906. The Austro-Hungarian system defined these as white plates with no rim, with black letters and numbers in a strictly defined alphanumerical code, always starting with a regional code (N=Prague, O=Bohemia, P=Moravia, R=Silesia). The size of the plate depended on the taste of the customer and he had to take the limited options for attaching it onto the body of the car into account, so shapes reminding of a kitchen chopping board or a plate with bevel corners so as not to disturb the outline of the vehicle were to be seen commonly. Since the law did not dictate any particular type of lettering, the signmaker could be creative. For better durability, oil-based paint was used, more demanding customers ordered impressed plates similar to street signs and house numbers. Today, one may wonder about the curious and rather inconvenient use of Roman and Arab numerals next to each other. However, at the time, Roman numerals were used for ordering lists (note that this custom remained up to this day in numbering of book chapters), and Arab numerals were used in calculations. The international code for vehicles from our lands was the black-and-white A for Austria.

Author: Petr Marinov, Translate: Olga Neumanová
Published by TYPO (typography · graphic design · visual communication)
TYPO.28 - August 2007