At the turn of the 20th century, automobiles were a novelty compared to the trusty horse and buggy, but it was obvious that they were the wave of the future. With more and more automobiles on the roads every year, counties and cities in Texas began registering vehicles as early as 1907. The first Texas automobile license plate was issued that summer for a motor bus owned by W.B. Chenoweth of Colorado City.
The idea of requiring vehicle owners to display an individual insignia originated in the state of New York in 1901. Owners of 954 vehicles in that state were required to “place the separate initials of the owner’s name onto the back thereof in a conspicuous place.” Some people even painted their initials and numbers on the body of the vehicle or on the headlamps.
In Texas, the earliest license plates were handmade by the vehicle owners or by local blacksmiths from a variety of materials. There were wooden plates (roof shingles were popular), leather plates with tin numerals attached with brads, and a more expensive plates with individual porcelain letters inserted on a heavy steel frame.
Until 1917, each motorist was responsible for obtaining their own license plates but that changed when the Legislature established the State Highway Department (what we now know as the Texas Department of Transportation). One of the many responsibilities entrusted to the department was the issuance of numbered plates of uniform design, color, and size for every motor vehicle or motorcycle registered in the state.