TBT: Hitting the roads

Crowds gather to look at a two-car automobile accident, 1930.
Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
Over the next few days, millions of Americans will hit the roads to travel for the holidays. As the transportation crossroads of North America, Illinois will be right in the middle of all that traffic. It is fitting, because Illinois was a state which quickly embraced the automotive revolution in the early 20th century. Illinois started regulating motor vehicle traffic as early as 1907. That was the same year that the state came out with an innovative way to make sure that auto registrations were up to date: the license plate.

The forerunners of Illinois’ license plates were authorized in 1907 as part of the Motor Vehicle Act. The law required that all Illinois motorists must register with the Secretary of State and pay a $2 fee to receive an aluminum disc with a registration number on it. The disc would be placed on the dashboard of the car.

The number of cars on the road quickly began to grow. By 1910, there were 27,500 passenger cars registered in Illinois. That year, the state began paying the cost of the plates, while motorists now had to pay a fee every year in order to register (a requirement that remained in Illinois law until this year). The General Assembly appropriated the sum of $35,000 for plates. That was also the year the “Automobile Department” of the Secretary of State’s office was created. It had four employees.

The General Assembly required a new plate design every year. Plates in 1912 were perforated so that air could flow through them to the engine and radiator. Illinois took this a step further the next year when the plate had no background at all: just cut-out numbers held in place by a border. Illinois plates would include various features to allow air to pass through them until 1918.

More than 100,000 cars were registered in Illinois by 1914. This presented a problem, as Illinois plate numbers only had five digits. So now letters would begin appearing on the plates as well, but only H, K, P and R in the first year. T, U, X, Y and Z were added the next year. Letters were phased out again in 1916. Only six other states had more than 100,000 registered automobiles that year.

The last dashboard discs were issued in 1917, as Illinois went completely to plates for its 340,300 cars. The first “truck” plates were issued in 1920. These plates displayed a registration number and also the maximum weight the truck was permitted to carry.

People wait in line to conduct business at the State Automobile Department in Springfield, Illinois, 1917.
Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
A 1923 bond issue for “hard roads” led to a bonanza of road construction throughout the state, and a surge in new vehicles. Where 682,000 cars were registered in 1922, the number hit 982,000 in 1924. By the end of the decade, there would be more than 1.4 million cars registered in Illinois. The employment in the Automobile Department necessarily had to grow as well, topping 100 in 1925.

Around this time the design of the plate began to be a little more artistic. The 1927 plates were black letters and numbers on a gold background, with an outline of the state and the letters “ILL 27” inside. Struggling to keep up with the number of cars (and the number of figures on the plate) Illinois license plates varied in size, depending on how many figures were printed on them.

A license plate work station at
 Illinois State Prison, Stateville.
During the Great Depression, Illinois prisoners began making plates at the Stateville Prison in Joliet at a cost of 6.4 cents (Illinois became the 30th state to have plates produced by inmates). These were the lowest-cost Illinois plates ever produced. After the 1935 plates changed color and rusted, the Secretary of State went back to issuing contracts to private businesses to produce Illinois plates. The Department of Public Welfare did not accept this change lying down: Director A.L. Bowen took the Secretary of State to court to try to force production back to state prisons. In 1937 the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that producing license plates in state prisons violated the Prison Industries Act because it would be direct competition with the private marketplace. Since then, Illinois prisoners have not made Illinois license plates.

A more square-shaped plate with the full word “Illinois” began appearing on vehicles in 1934, but still without letters except for some truck plates which had letters designating their weight categories. During the 1930s different kinds of Illinois plates began appearing. Dealer and Farm plates were two of the most common. A bill creating a specialty plate promoting state parks was defeated by the General Assembly in 1939.

Taxi and livery plates debuted in 1941 and special plates for buses were introduced the next year. With the coming of World War II metal for new plates became scarcer. From 1943 to 1948, Illinois license plates were made out of fiberboard instead of steel. A specialty plate for disabled veterans was introduced in 1948, with the first one going to Robert Dinsmore of Peoria. These plates, a white background with red and blue characters, remain in use today.

Following World War II Illinois went over the 2 million vehicle mark. Plates were made out of aluminum starting in 1950, and the now-familiar words “Land of Lincoln” first appeared in 1954. The legislation which put the slogan on the plates also called for an image of Lincoln, but the idea was scratched because such artwork was not thought to be feasible at the time. Plate size was standardized in 1956 at 6 x 12-inches, instead of the size being determined by the length of the plate number. The next year, Illinois vehicle registrations reached 3 million.

During the 1950s, plates still changed color every year, but a little less randomly. The 1955 plates were orange and blue for the University of Illinois. The 1957 plates carried the red and white colors of Illinois State. Through the late ‘50s and early ‘60s plates honored a different Illinois college or university by displaying its school colors.

New innovations in license plates appeared in many states during the ‘50s and ‘60s, and different factors were considered in their design. Police complained that the orange-and-white 1962 plates were difficult to read under some conditions. The 1966 plates were the first ones to be reflective, which made them easier to read at night. There were now more than 4 million cars on Illinois roads.

Paul Powell. Photo from the Abraham Lincoln
Presidential Library and Museum.
Illinois’ 1970 plates were the subject of a political corruption scandal. The contract for the plates was given to an Arizona company, which set aside 3.6 cents per plate for a “commission” which went to Secretary of State Paul Powell. Powell died suddenly that October, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash was found in shoeboxes in his Springfield hotel room. It is estimated that Powell made $80,000 off the license plate commission, more than double his salary as Secretary of State. Company executives were indicted in 1974 in connection with the affair. They were prosecuted by U.S. Attorney Jim Thompson, who went on to become Governor in 1977.

With more than five million cars registered and the nation’s bicentennial just around the corner, the 1976 plates had to be special. Half the states in the nation designed some kind of commemorative bicentennial plate, including Illinois. A contest for students to design the plate was announced and more than 400,000 entries were received. The winning design came from Kelley Jordan, a 10-year-old from Normal.

The next year, car registrations passed six million. The legislature removed the requirement for annual license plates, making us the 45th state to allow multi-year plates. In 1979 the first multi-year plate rolled out, with a blue-and-white design in honor of Illinois College and with indentations in the top corners for an annual registration sticker.

The coming of the 1980s brought an expansion in vanity and specialty plates. Vanity plates were first introduced in 1980. More than 24,000 were requested in the first year. Among the first specialty plates issued in the ‘80s were plates for Medal of Honor recipients and National Guard members. Specialty plates honoring specific special events were authorized in 1983. That same year, Illinois license plate production began at Macon Resources in Decatur. Illinois plates, which in the past have been made in many different states, have been made in Decatur ever since.

In the 1990s, more specialty plates appeared. “Environmental” plates which designate funds for state parks were issued in 1994, the same year that Korean War veteran plates were first issued, with their funds going to build a Korean War Memorial. In 1999, the Secretary of State announced that Illinois’ standard license plate would be redesigned for the first time since 1984. The new plate’s design was put up for a vote by the public, and more 230,000 Illinoisans weighed in. The design that was chosen featured a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, the idea that was rejected as unfeasible in 1954.

 Special interest license plates. Photo from worldlicenseplates.com
Some of those plates, which began to be issued in 2001, are still on Illinois cars today. The state began its latest re-plating effort in 2016, and it is ongoing.

Today, Illinois has dozens of different license plates. If you wish to use your license plate to express support for the Firefighters Memorial or the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation, Illinois allows you to do so. Suppose you’re an Eagle Scout, wish to raise autism awareness or are a veteran: you can use your license plate to spread your message. Or if you just happen to be a fan of the Bulls, Bears, Blackhawks, Cubs or White Sox: Illinois has a license plate for you.

For the full history of the development of Illinois’ license plates, check out the Secretary of State’s History of Illinois License Plates movie here. And remember to drive safely this holiday season!