Genealogists have dozens of types of records to search. The one they don’t have access to, unless they are in law enforcement, is Department of Motor Vehicle records

If while digging through a family member’s attic you find license plates, a driver’s license, or a certificate of driving school completion, you could learn a few things about an ancestor — where they lived, birthdate, color of hair and eyes, height and weight, and perhaps a photo.

The automobile laws and regulations we now have grew slowly through the 1900s. Prior to 1901, cars were not registered or licensed, nor were licenses required to drive. In 1901, New York car owners were the first required to have their initials, black on white background, painted on a piece of wood or metal, on the rear of the car as identification. As ownership grew, combinations of initials ran out, thus other methods of identification were adopted.

License plates were not government issued in most jurisdictions and many people made their own. The first state to issue plates was Massachusetts in 1903.

By 1918, all states required automobiles driven on public roads to be registered and plated with porcelain enamel on steel plates. However, those plates were fragile and broke easily. Other materials tried were leather, cardboard, plastic and, during wartime, pressed soybeans and copper. Later, stamped steel was used and is now the standard. Sizes varied until they were standardized to 6-by-12 inches in 1956. Each state issues license plates and each has a system of numbering, with letters, as well as design.

Driver’s licenses came later. In 1913, Massachusetts and Missouri were the first states to require a license to drive on public roadways. Henry Ford built the Model T in 1908 and got his driver’s license at age 56, when Michigan passed the law in 1919.

In 1908, Rhode Island was first to require an exam to receive a driver’s license. It took several years for all the states to follow suit. South Dakota was last to require driver’s license (1954) and the last to require an exam (1959).

In early years, people were taught to drive by family, friends, classes at the YMCA, and car salesmen.

The license plate or driver’s license may not hold a lot of information, but it does put your ancestor into the context of auto driving history. For example, if you find a 1920s driver’s license issued to a woman, it might tell you that she was a resourceful woman, or a widow, or employed, or maybe a teacher who had to taxi children to school as part of her job. Driving was a step in a woman’s sense of freedom from traditional roles.

Knowing the history helps solve the mystery.

Becky McCreary is newsletter editor and photographer for the Green Valley Genealogical Society. Contact her at or visit the society's website at


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