Frederick Tudor Was Number One: The Story of the First License Plate in the U.S.

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Frederick Tudor with the first license plate issued in the United States
Up until 1900 in Massachusetts, there were no laws governing the rules of the roads for any type of traffic—carriages, wagons, pedestrians—especially for the burgeoning numbers of automobiles. Not only was it confusing, but a mix of so many modes of transportation was also quite dangerous. For example, the first auto-related death in the U.S. happened in New York in 1899 when 68-year-old Henry Bliss was struck by a taxi near Central Park.
The Massachusetts Legislature passed a bill in 1892, creating a Commission of Inquiry that noted more than 90 percent of the roads were in very poor condition and were only going to get worse as traffic increased. This investigation led to the creation of the Massachusetts Highway Commission a year later; it was one of the first such governmental bodies in the country to “improve the public roads, and to define its powers and duties,” according to the 1893 Commission Report.
Meanwhile, wealthy Henry Lee Higginson (he was the founder of Boston Symphony Orchestra) was growing tired of cars regularly exceeding the speed limit of 15 miles an hour on the roads near his summer estate. He submitted a petition in 1903 about his problem entitled, “A Petition Relative to Licensing Automobiles and Those Operating the Same.”
Higginson had influential friends.
By June of that same year, as a way of creating the revenue to improve the roads, as well as identifying cars involved in newly created traffic infractions, Massachusetts passed a provision in Chapter 473 of the Acts of 1903, creating the “automobile department” (headed by Elting O’Hara, the highway commission board’s stenographer). As Higginson suggested, the new “automobile department” required all automobile owners to register their cars and pay the two dollar fee each year; in exchange, license plates were issued to each registered car. The public had until September to comply. Incidentally, New York had been the first to require license plates in 1901, but relied on the car owners to make their own. Massachusetts was the first state in the nation to issue plates, and by New Year’s Eve 1903, 3,241 automobiles and 502 motorcycles (in addition to 692 chauffeur licenses and car manufacturer licenses) helped deposit $17,684 into the state treasury.
The very first license plate issued by a state government (Number 1) was issued on September 1, 1903, to Frederick Tudor of Brookline. Not only was Tudor just the right man at the right time, but he was working with the highway commission at the time and he just so happened to be the nephew of Henry Lee Higginson.
The very first license plate issued by a state government (Number 1) was issued on September 1, 1903, to Frederick Tudor of Brookline
These early Massachusetts license plates were made of iron and covered in a porcelain enamel. The background was colored a cobalt blue and the number was white. Along the top of the plate were the words, “MASS. AUTOMOBILE REGISTER.” The size of the plate was not constant; it grew wider as the plate number reached into the tens, hundreds, and thousands.
Tudor’s license plate Number 1 is actively registered to one of his descendants.
Immediately after the first license plates appeared, drivers in Massachusetts were vying to obtain the lowest numbered plate available as a symbol of status. For the past 20 years, the Registry of Motor Vehicles has held a lottery to clear out low numbered license plates from its inventory. Nearly 5,000 people enter this lottery every year in the hopes of winning a much coveted low-number plate, and even though a three- or four-digit license plate can carry an air of exclusivity to its owner, no one can get any better than Tudor’s license plate Number 1, which is still actively registered to one of his descendants.
License plates are one part of a car that are usually trouble-free. Count on Chilton for maintenance and repair information when trouble arises, such as the rare cases when the auto manufacturer says the license plate needs a little TLC, or specifies hardware for a proper fit.
License plates play a part in all of our lives. Would you recognize the license plates from popular TV shows and movies? Try our quiz at the Chilton facebook page,

10 responses to “Frederick Tudor Was Number One: The Story of the First License Plate in the U.S.”

  1. John Schnyer says:

    Ryan – good article re: Ma. plate #1. There is a real
    history involved and your writeup is accurate from my research, also. Tudor was a nephew to Henry Lee Higgison who was a distinguished Civil War commander. Higgison was later elected to the Ma. Senate and had extreme “clout”. Tons of history on him. He was the founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Appeciate your article!

  2. Chris Rindos says:

    Very interesting story, Ryan.

    This will interest you: My wife and I were walking through our town of Mystic, CT today, and we saw a million-dollar Porsche 918 parked on the street outside of a restaurant. That was mindblowing enough for me, but then I noticed that its Massachusetts plate read “1.” That lead me to Google, and then to your article. Thanks for satisfying my curiosity! (See the attached photo of the 918.)

  3. Ryan Price says:

    How cool is that!?! When I researched the story, I couldn’t find any information if the plate was still in the Tudor family or not, so it is great to see that it still exists, at least.

    He is sporting the “United We Stand” plate. According to the Massachusetts DMV: 50 percent of the registration proceeds go to the 9/11 Fund, 25 percent goes to the Commonwealth Security Fund, and the other 25 percent goes to the Military Heroes Fund.

    Great find and thanks for the picture.

  4. Boo Boo says:

    that picture is not for a car with the license plate “1” but for a car with the license plate “US1” — in Massachusetts all specialty plates have a two-letter abbreviation followed by a 4-letter identifier

    boo boo

  5. Ryan Price says:

    Thanks for the clarification. It is still a unique plate and a beautiful car!

  6. Ralph Saint Aubin says:

    Frederic Tudor is the grandson of the same name who developed the “ice trade” out of Boston. want ice? in Havana, Mobile AL, New Orleans, Houston, and lots of hot spots, you got it from Fred. in my town and neighboring towns in MA, lots of streets and places are named ice house road because ice skimmed from ponds in the winter were stored there and shipped by railroad thru Boston to our Southern brothers. and yes, my grandpappy had a blue enamel plate now nailed to my garage wall. The official MA plate of the same number is attached to my car. Ninety years on, one family, one plate (one braggart), lots of fun.

  7. Ryan Price says:

    Ralph, how exciting to hear that you are related to Frederick Tudor and that your family still has the first license plate! Would it be possible for your to post a picture of it here? I think everyone would love to see it!

  8. Keith Collins says:

    Ryan…i have a picture of the very first california licensce plate year 1903 and it came from San Diego!!!!!!!

  9. Ryan Price says:

    Keith, I would love to see it. Could I post it here? Cool!

  10. Lil Stark says:

    I have a license plate which simply says: USA at top and
    S-692 on the plate. Anyone have any idea what it is?

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