Genealogy info from a license plate?
November 3, 2014 10:50 PM   Subscribe

We discovered this picture. Not even the oldest people in my family can identify the man. As the family historian, I should know who it is but i don't. As you can see from the picture, the license plate is visible. I think this is in Maryland. Has anyone ever used license plate info for genealogy? Are these records even kept?
posted by brownrd to Law & Government (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I Want to direct you to this page as a starting point, where they explain a bit about early Maryland license plates. All seem to have MD notation on them, which may at least help you narrow down a date of the photo or give you a pre-date. Good luck.
posted by rabidsegue at 3:28 AM on November 4, 2014

Based on rabidsegue's link, this would be a 1922 Maryland license plate. The numbers were issued in sequence; 122-957 falls into the 1921-22 range; 1921 was red on white, which doesn't match picture, 1922's color scheme matches the photo. But the problem is that the state name and date for 1922 were above the numerals, not below as appears to be the case in the picture. Perhaps on your original you can read the date in the bottom line?

The proprietor of that site, Rick Kretchmer, might be able to tell you whether any records are extant.
posted by beagle at 6:14 AM on November 4, 2014

License plate collector and Maryland resident here. You want to go to Rick Kretschmer's Maryland license plate page, which I see rabidsegue has beaten me to linking. Rick is considered among collectors to be one of the foremost authorities on MD license plates.

I don't know if the records are kept for that long ago, or if they would be publicly accessible. Occasionally, in collectors' circles, I have seen early, handwritten registration records for New England states, listing, in order by plate number, the names and towns of residence of the registrants.

Send an e-mail to Rick; he might have better information.

As a collector, I've had hit-or-miss luck with questioning MVA on these sorts of things -- it seems to depend on which person answers your e-mail or the phone. Many have said they have had better luck showing up in person in Glen Burnie.
posted by tckma at 7:13 AM on November 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

From studying that link, I note that during the 20s Maryland alternated placing the state name above or below the number each year. Even numbered years, the MARYLAND 19XX is above the number, and odd numbered years the MARYLAND 19XX is on the bottom. It's a pretty long-running pattern. I can only assume they did it for easy visual identification, although the colors change so dramatically it seems unnecessary to add another visual indicator.

But anyway. As Beagle notes, the best color match for the tones in the B&W photo is 1922, but it's not a 1922 Maryland plate because the date and state name are on the bottom and they should be on the top.

I don't see any other Maryland plate that would look like that. You might want to check surrounding states. I'm pretty sure it's not Virginia because they were still putting the state ID off to the side at this point. Ditto for DC.

On the other hand, Pennsylvania 1920 looks like a pretty good match.
posted by Naberius at 7:29 AM on November 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Although the 7 looks to be curved in your photo where the Pennsylvania plate's 7 is more straight. Hell, I don't know. fascinating question though, and I'm amazed at how seriously some people take their license plates!
posted by Naberius at 7:35 AM on November 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

Sorry to thread-sit...

Is it possible that this is from a state other than Maryland? Looking at your picture, it seems to bear some resemblance to the 1921 New York plate I have in my personal collection. The dies ("font") used for the number seems a little blocky to me, like in NY plates of that era.

Not my plates in any of these photos, but here's some 1910s and 20s NY plates:

1917 NY looks like it might also be a match, though the "N.Y. 1917" seems narrower than the "N.Y. 1921." It's very tough to tell from a black and white photo.
posted by tckma at 8:26 AM on November 4, 2014

Response by poster: Wow you guys are awesome. Honestly... I have no real clue what state this was in. My family is from Maryland and I can't see the words below the numbers, even on the original. I am going to try and enhance the image to see if I can make it out.
posted by brownrd at 10:19 AM on November 4, 2014

Response by poster: I sharpened and embossed the image using GIMP. I can just barely, if I squint, make put 192? and Penna. The Penna part is a bit more plausible. The year is to the left and Penna is to the right.
posted by brownrd at 10:40 AM on November 4, 2014

I'm not sure I really have anything to add to this thread, but dang is it fascinating.

Would the make/model/year of the cars in the photo help narrow it down? I doubt the buildings would help much, but maybe those ads with the bottles on them would, if you can identify them.
posted by Billiken at 11:49 AM on November 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I can just barely, if I squint, make put 192? and Penna.

That probably limits you to the year 1920. Your picture shows a 1 with serifs. Pennsylvania appears to have stopped using serifs on 1s in 1924 (See here.) 1920 seems like the best color match to your photo out of 1920-1923 PA plates.

The ALPCA plate image archives (which is in the "Members' Only" section of the website, so you won't have access to it) shows a 1921 Pennsylvania plate without serifs on the 1's. The 1920 plate in their image archives doesn't have a 1 on it, so I can't tell.

I can't think of a good reason why PA would not have used serifs on 1's through 1919, used them in 1920, then not used them in 1921 -- so this may not be a PA plate. 1920 seems to have ushered in a new design in PA plates (no more porcelain plates), so it is indeed possible that they changed the die set in the early years of the new style plates. You do say that you can make out "Penna." on the plate, though.

I'll have to ask the ALPCA e-mail list on the serifs.
posted by tckma at 1:17 PM on November 4, 2014

Can you see keystone graphics in the lower left and right corners of the plate? (I don't see them.) If not, and if it is indeed a PA plate, it's from 1920. (See the page I linked in my comment above.)
posted by tckma at 1:28 PM on November 4, 2014

Response by poster: I don't see the keystone. Doesn't mean it's not there... but I don't see it.
posted by brownrd at 1:37 PM on November 4, 2014

Well my mailing list says that is NOT a Pennsylvania plate, as PA didn't use serifs on 1s until the mid-1930s.

Guess we're back to Square One.
posted by tckma at 2:04 PM on November 4, 2014

Response by poster: I have a call in to another aged cousin to see if he can help.
posted by brownrd at 5:25 PM on November 4, 2014

Rick seems to think it's Missouri. Is that possible?
posted by tckma at 11:55 AM on November 5, 2014

Response by poster: tckma I really doubt it. I have, literally, no family in MO.
posted by brownrd at 3:44 PM on November 5, 2014

Response by poster: Well, it's official... I have exhausted all options as far as checking with family. The one person who I thought for sure might know has no clue who this is. Thanks for all your help!
posted by brownrd at 1:41 PM on November 13, 2014

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