Friday, June 25, 2010


(or, for the puzzle-challenged, "what's in a name")

Serial Boxes. Clever, yes?

Because that piece of metal attached to the hind end of your car (or truck, or bus, or custom chopper, or what-have-you) is box-shaped, yes? And it contains a serial number, hence identifying your particular road-traveling device to the world at large.

Serial. Boxes.

(Pardon me while I revel in my own cleverness...okay, that's done.)

We are here to discuss the oft-overlooked subject of motor vehicle license plates. If you live on Earth and own a motor vehicle of some kind, you more than likely have a plate attached to it. And yet, despite this incredibly common bond that we vehicle-owning Earthlings share, the vast, uncountable majority of people could not give two-tenths of a darn about the significance of that little metal (or sometimes plastic) tag.

Keep in mind that the concept and process of registering motorized transport (or non-motorized transport, for that matter) has been an important pursuit for hundreds of years. And that same process has, like so many other things, grown more and more complex as the world has evolved and expanded.

For instance, in the year 1895, it would have been highly unlikely that the average person would have ever even seen an automobile, let alone had the wherewithal or resources to actually own (or, more than likely at the time, build) one. Hence, there was very little consideration given to keeping track of what was then an amusing novelty product.

Just ten years later in 1905, that consideration had started to become fairly important. As the automotive "fad" began to expand in popularity, more and more people became owners and operators of motor vehicles. And as the user base increased, so did the possibilities for conflict arise. The term "auto theft" was not yet in wide use, but would soon get there. Advancing technology, then as now, led to more powerful and hence faster automobiles -- and to an increased possibility that those higher speeds might lead to dangerous encounters with immovable objects or even other automobiles.

And so local governments around the world began to take action, for two main reasons. The one they generally promoted as their foremost goal was fairly obvious: they intended to keep track of motor vehicles in order to ensure the safety and security of motorists. But the other objective, not as commonly stated but always a popular motivation for legislative bodies throughout history, was to make a little money on the side. Let's take a look at both.

The first goal was noble, to be sure. Registering each vehicle with a specific number would help the ever-growing number of motorists in the world to ensure the security of their property (by being able to track it down should it ever be stolen) and the well-being of their person (by being able to identify and/or prosecute the owners of dangerous or unsafe vehicles).

Goal the Second, the process of making a profit for the governmental body in question, becomes fairly obvious when one looks at the very earliest types of license plates. Heck, most states didn't even produce their own plates! They left that job up to the individual motorist, simply assigning a number and a loose set of specifications to them and assuming that all would go well. As you might expect, results varied widely. Observe:

The plate above (the picture of which I found here) is what's known as a "pre-state" plate from New York, circa 1909. Yes, that's painted leather, and yes, those are the sort of numbers you'd usually find tacked onto a house. Crude, but considering its age (just under 100 years old at the time of the photo), it's still effective in displaying the pertinent information. Speaking of information -- the automobile as a concept was only about 15 years old when this plate was constructed, and yet there were already at least 75,000 vehicles on the roads in New York State alone. Clearly, vehicle registration was a booming business, worthy of a more professional and regulated approach. Unsurprisingly, New York began producing their own sturdy metal plates within the next year.

So, obviously, things have improved since then, yes? What with modern printing and painting technology, not to mention ruthlessly efficient computerized database systems for tracking each and every vehicle on the roads, there must not be much room for error left.

Well, check this out...

Straight from Libya (and an interesting photo archive) comes this beauty, circa 2005. If it looks a little rough, that's because it's hand-painted. Yes, even in this supposedly modern era that we live in, not much has apparently changed in 100 years or so. But despite that, this homemade special still serves the purpose it was created for: to display the place of registry and the vehicle's registration number (in Arabic, sure, but I guess we'll just have to believe).

The world of license plates, and the design and creation thereof, is a fascinating and often strange place to explore. Believe me, there's lots more where those two came from.

Stay tuned!


This is a test of the Serial Boxes Blogging System.

The slightly deranged license plate collector and enthusiast running this blog, in voluntary cooperation with and other authorities, has developed this system to keep you informed about license plates.

If this had been an actual blog posting, you would have been instructed about the design and functionality of automotive license plates from the United States, Canada, Mexico, and other locations in or near the North American continent.

Serial Boxes serves the international license plate collecting community, as well as all those with a general interest in graphic design and/or tedious governmental bureaucracy.

This concludes this test of the Serial Boxes Blogging System.