They adorn the front and back of almost every car. They line the walls of collectors. And yet, if you aren’t a hobbyist, you probably haven’t thought twice about your license plates — except perhaps during a tedious visit to the DMV, which is not the most positive association. Yet these small pieces of metal carry history with them right down to the typography used on them, and Butte native Ken Fitzgerald wants to tell you all about it.
Fitzgerald’s 2020 book “Montana License Plates” is the definitive — well, maybe only — text on the history and current landscape of Montana’s license plates. It’s the product of Fitzgerald’s more than 15 years of collecting plates, as well as a ton of research.
“Montana License Plates” takes the reader on the scenic route through history, from the first car to the factors used to judge the worth of plates today. Accompanying this history are pictures of what seems like enough plates to outfit every car in Butte — although some of them would definitely get you pulled over, considering the oldest plate in the book is from 1914.
The book contains many interesting tidbits that I did not know about license plates — although, admittedly, I did not know squat about license plates. The first state-issued license plates in America were issued by Massachusetts in 1903, and were made of porcelain.
In Montana, the prefix numbers designating a plate’s county have remained the same since 1934. Here and in many other states, license plates are manufactured by prison inmates.
Montana was the only state whose license plates bore the phrase “prison made,” a practice that continued from 1938 to 1962. Montana boasts over 300 specialty license plate designs, each sponsored by a qualified organization or government body. In 2015 alone, revenue from specialty license plates reached $3.9 million. Apparently, there’s big money in plates.
Today, there are five Montana base plate choices. The newest one was issued beginning in 2010, and contains elements calling back to design choices from past plates. It features white text and a state outline on a solid blue background, which is easy to read from a distance. According to the book, the other base plate designs were made available after the 2010 plate was met with mixed reactions.
I really like the 2010 retro plate. But if I could choose any plate documented in the book for my car, I’d pick the 1933 plate, which features embossed light orange numerals and state outline on a burnt copper background.
Ken Fitzgerald is a Butte native who lives in Kalispell. His collection of over 3,000 plates has specimens from all 50 states and some international plates. “Montana License Plates” is his first book. He helps to collect plates for the Montana Highway Patrol’s Hope Project, which raises money for sick children with the funds from recycling license plates.
“Montana License Plates” is available at scottpublishingcompany.com/store.