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Presidential Inaugural Plates
A Series of Special Event, Limited-Use Plates

 

Special-event license plates were first used to commemorate the inauguration of President Roosevelt in 1933, and with the exception of 1945, they have been used ever since. All inaugural plates, except those made since 1989 for use on motorcycles, have been made in pairs.

From the standpoint of being available to the general public, available historical information suggests that inaugural plates were first offered at least as early as 1949. No registration certificates for 1933 plates, of which 500 sets are thought to have been made, are known to exist, suggesting that the first plates were not available to the public, but instead were used only on official vehicles. Likewise, even though registration certificates for 1937 and 1941 plates are known to exist today, those preserved were assigned to dignitaries and VIPs, suggesting that the fewer than 1,000 pairs made for each year were not available to the general public.

Unfortunately official records that indicate to whom presidential inaugural pates were issued over the years are almost non-existent. With the exception of 1957, for which a copy of nearly every inaugural registration certificate exists, there are no known records of exactly how many plates were issued and to whom. Occasionally a registration certificate is found with a plate, but these instances are rare. As for the quantity of plates produced every four years no exact production figures are known, although numbers on surviving examples provide excellent clues to estimate the number made. This is especially true for 1933 through 1969, when only numbered plates were made available to the general public. At least some plates of all later series include letters, complicating the process of estimating production runs. The early, pre-1961 plates, made in smaller quantities and with classic designs, are the more rare and desirable to collectors today.

Sample inaugural plates, with zeros in place of a standard number, are known to have been made for every issue from 1933 through 2001, as well as for some of the 2005 and later designs. Examples of all except the first are known to have been preserved by collectors. Registration certificates are know for all issues from 1937 through 2001 and mailing envelopes for plates of most issues since 1937 also have been preserved.

Presidential Inaugural Plates Defined

To be considered a presidential inaugural plate, a plate design for a particular inauguration need have been used on at least one (but preferably more) official vehicles involved directly in official inaugural activities. Official vehicles are vehicles under the control of federal officials or their designees (e.g. members of the administration transition team, the inaugural committee, and federal and municipal law enforcement agencies), whether owned by, leased to, or otherwise provided to federal officials or their designees. Official inaugural activities are activities and events organized or sanctioned by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, such as the pre-inaugural concert, inaugural church services attended by the president-elect, the trip from The White House to the U.S. Capitol by the president and president-elect on inauguration day, and the inaugural parade and balls.

The primary purpose of presidential inaugural plates has always been to identify official vehicles involved in official activities on (and perhaps within a day or two before and after) inauguration day. Whether the plates were offered to the general public, and (if so) whether corresponding temporary registration certificates were available that allowed them to be used in lieu of or in conjunction with valid D.C. or state-issued license plates, is not a determinant in our definition.

About Our Coverage of Inaugural Plates

We have divided the 20 inaugural issues since 1933 into four eras based upon their general characteristics and the way in which plate collectors may perceive them. Although all are authentic inaugural plates by definition, nobody can argue that plates and the programs under which they have recently been made available are in any way similar to those of the early years.

Click on the photos adjacent to the era descriptions to reach pages upon which plates of years within each era are addressed.

 

Link to page with information about 2005-2013 presidential inaugural plates.

Link to page with information about 2005-2013 presidential inaugural plates.

1933-1957: Early Classics. The first six inaugural issues are characterized by non-reflectorized plates with registration combinations comprised only of numbers that were produced in relatively low quantities and valid for short periods of time. They are the most scarce inaugural plates and the most sought after by collectors today.


Link to page with information about 2005-2013 presidential inaugural plates.

Link to page with information about 2005-2013 presidential inaugural plates.

1961-1981: Late Classics. With these six issues the inaugural plate program began to modernize and expand in several ways. During this era the inaugural plate period of use was lengthened dramatically (to 3.5 months in 1961 from 19 days in 1957), flat plates and reflectivity were introduced (1961), production quantities were increased (to 10,000 sets in 1961 compared with 4,500 in 1957), and serial letters were introduced (1965). Nevertheless, these plates were clearly still designed primarily to be used on motor vehicles, and their distribution was administered by the D.C. Dept. of Motor Vehicles, not the inaugural committee.


Link to page with information about 2005-2013 presidential inaugural plates.

Link to page with information about 2005-2013 presidential inaugural plates.

1985-2001: Early Souvenirs. Referring to these five issues as “souvenirs” is somewhat of a misnomer because they are true inaugural plates and could be used on vehicles, yet they were obviously designed and marketed more as souvenirs than vehicle license plates. During this era commemorative frames and plate stickers were introduced (1985), corporate logos and other commemorative graphics burst onto the scene (1989), motorcycle plates were introduced (1989), a gradual shift away from sequentially-assigned numbers to personalized numbers began, and control of the inaugural plate program shifted from the D.C. DMV to the inaugural committee.


Link to page with information about 2005-2013 presidential inaugural plates.

Link to page with information about 2005-2013 presidential inaugural plates.

Since 2005: Recent Souvenirs. Inaugural plates made since 2005 have been more about fundraising and commemoration of inaugural events than vehicle registration. In fact, none of these plates were legal for use on privately-owned motor vehicles. For each issue since 2005 there have been at least two official designs, and with the exception of one of the two 2005 offerings all plates have been made with specific or personalized registration combinations, which is to say no longer is a batch of sequentially-numbered plates made. Since 2009 plates made in small quantities by the inaugural committee have been closely controlled and not available to the public.

 



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This page last updated on January 1, 2014

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