UNION, Ill. – A rare porcelain license plate, designed in the early days of automobiles in St. Louis, recently sold for $8,500 at an Illinois auction.

The license plate dates back to 1906 and displays the license number of 90 with a yellow background. It came into the hands of Illinois-based Donley Auctions with an estimated value of $500 to $1,000.

Historians say the license plates were used for some of the earliest days of automobile ownership around the United States and represented wealth while others traveled around via horse, buggy or walking.

“They were pretty rare because there weren’t a lot of cars on the road at that time,” said Mike Donley with Donley Auctions in Union, Illinois near Chicago. “They’re made of steel and they’re porcelain-coated. They were regularly pre-state plates because it was before the states actually issued the plates.”

A report from PorcelainPlates.net estimates that St. Louis City and St. Louis County began issuing porcelain plates as early as 1904. Kansas City, Philadelphia, Chicago and New York City were also among the early ambassadors of porcelain plates. Historians say the plates were a “part of an owner’s identity” because porcelain was also used to make expensive items, like kitchenware. The report adds for those who had an automobile and porcelain plate, “everyone in town knew who owned which cars.”

Two major game-changers in the automobile industry led to porcelain plates phasing out in the early 20th century. Commercially-manufactured vehicles became more available when Henry Ford invented the first assembly line in 1913. Around that time, states also took control of automobile registration in an effort to improve travel conditions.

“All of the bigger cities, in the early days of motoring, the conditions of the roads were so poor,” said Donley. “In order to build better roads, they had to raise revenue. They figured, let’s tax the automobile drivers so the people who would need better roads would pay for it.” 

As states took over the licensing process, many also began passing laws to regulate speed, the equipment vehicles could carry and which roads were off limits for vehicle use. Porcelain plates became a commodity of the past, and historians believe Providence, Rhode Island issued the last-known ones in the early-1940s.

The recently-auctioned St. Louis porcelain plate was part of a large collection that Donley Auctions received from a moving family. That collection also included a Chicago porcelain plate that sold for $34,000 in an auction last weekend.

“These ones we got a hold of, they’re going to go back in a collection and no one will see them for the next 20-30 years,” said Donley. “When these things come up, [the buyers] know, I’ll never have the opportunity to buy another one, so I’ll have to spend the money now.”

Donley Auctions will auction off a smaller collection of porcelain plates in the upcoming weeks. The Donley family encourages people to check their garages or storage areas for such plates, some which can be viewed on the Donley Auctions website.