Delaware's tag: Beauty in the eye of the beholder

Low-digit tags are among nation's most sought after
January 17, 2014

While some may get excited about a recent survey ranking Delaware's license plate as the least-appealing in the United States, Mike Williams, Department of Motor Vehicles communications chief, laughs it off. “This survey has no real impact how DMV thinks,” Williams said.

He said if the survey included more than 2,000 people, or if 100,000 responders lived in Delaware, the survey might have a little more impact.

“Our plate contains the state colors and state motto, and it's not seen anywhere else. We have the longest running design for a base plate in the United States,” Williams said.

Delaware's blue and gold tag – which has a long history of changes in the early half of the 20th century – has remained relatively unchanged since 1962. The modern style blue and gold tags debuted in 1958; The First State motto was added to the plate in 1962.

A recent survey of plates nationwide ranked Delaware's blue-and-gold plate dead last. The survey found that Wyoming's plate – featuring a cowboy and bucking bronco silhouetted against the landmark Teton Mountains – was at the top of the list. The remaining top 10 were: 2. Hawaii; 3. Utah; 4. Alabama; 5. Oregon; 6. Maine; 7. South Carolina; 8. Florida; 9. Georgia; 10. Oklahoma.

The bottom 10 were: 42. Vermont; 43. Massachusetts; 44. Washington, D.C.; 45. Montana; 46. New York; 47. Virginia; 48. Alaska; 49. Michigan; 50. Arkansas; 51. Delaware.

History is the real story of state's tags

Williams said the history behind Delaware's license plates and the appeal the plates have to collectors is the real story. Over the years, collectors have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to own a piece of Delaware tag history one digit at a time.

In 2008, tag 6 was sold by Rehoboth Beach auctioneer Butch Emmert for $675,000, the highest price ever paid for a Delaware tag. “There is no better investment in the U.S.” Emmert said.

Williams said Delaware is in a unique situation – because of its low population – and is one of only a handful of states that still have low-digit tags in service. “Low-digit tags are not an option that other states have,” Williams said.

About 890,000 vehicles are registered in Delaware.

Even the General Assembly realized the value and fascination with Delaware's tags when it changed the law to allow specified vehicle type prefixes to be used on any vehicle. Williams said that way someone with a low-digit tag with a prefix such as commercial (C), recreational vehicle (RV), farm truck (FT) or pleasure/commercial (PC), could keep the tag if they no longer owned the vehicle it was tagged on originally. In the past, those tag numbers had to be surrendered to DMV.

“That's why you can now see a FT on a Cadillac,” Williams said.

When plates were issued in numerical order starting in 1909, it was the rich and famous of Delaware society who were able to obtain the first plates, according to a history published on the DMV website. A status symbol was born that has been perpetuated for more than 100 years.

Williams said for decades new, different-colored tags were issued each year because there were no stickers that we are familiar with today. He said records dating back to the early 1900s show some vehicle owners preferred to keep their same tag number from year to year. Steel tags replaced porcelain tags in 1915. The first slotted tags – to hold a metal inspection year insert – appeared around 1941. It wasn't long after that the state stopped issuing tags for the front and rear of vehicles.

The first tags were issued by the Delaware Secretary of State because there was no DMV or even a highway department.

Starting in 1906, the few people who had vehicles in the state created their own license plates. In 1909 – because state officials knew there were about 900 registered vehicles – plate numbers started with 1000. In 1910, tags were issued in numerical order starting with 1.

It's rare to find a single-digit or double-digit tag on the open market. Tag 1 is reserved for the governor, tag 2 for the lieutenant governor and tag 3 for the secretary of state; it's open season on every other tag.

The website is the place to buy and sell tags. According to the website, the following is the going rate for low-digit tags: Single-digit, $500,000; double-digit, $100,000 to $200,000; three-digit, $20,000 to $65,000; four-digit, $3,000 to $12,000; and five-digit, $200 to $1,500.

Delaware offers a variety of license plates

It might surprise many people to discover that Delaware offers more than 80 license plates for an extra fee, not including personal vanity tags. The special tags include logos and graphic design for colleges, fraternal organizations, clubs, fire departments and the military. There are also tags to support farmland preservation, MERR, animal welfare and the environment.

What is old, is new again. The Delaware Historic Plate Co. offers black and white porcelain plates that are faithful to the original design back in the early 1900s. Delaware is the only state that offers this service.

Read a history of Delaware's license plates at:

Take part in the survey at:


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