I found an article online that makes the claim: "... registration plates having been used on carriages and wagons in the U.S. as far back as the early 1800s." The article can be found here: A License to Collect. Unfortunately, as it's always the case with most internet publications, I cannot seem to find the list of references used to back this claim, and I certainly don't have much experience reading the Monthly Mecum to put much authority on their journalistic process. Ultimately, I'd like to know

  • Did horse drawn buggies/carriages/wagons need registration in the U.S. before automobiles. If they did, did the drivers have to plate their vehicles similar to how we do with automobiles?
  • What was the first instance of vehicle registration in the world and where did it happen?
  • 1
    There isn't enough to make an answer from in License plates predate automobiles but the San Antonio example seems to refer to vehicles for hire. May 21, 2022 at 8:09
  • I did see this article as well, but like you said it isn't sufficient in answering the question. Additionally, the article failed to cite the actual ordinance in reference.
    – David G.
    May 22, 2022 at 18:09
  • How do you define "automobile"? Would you include steam powered road vehicles? Are you specifically looking for registration requirements for horse-drawn vehicles?
    – phoog
    May 24, 2022 at 12:21
  • @phoog, you look at the "terms defined" section of the relevant law.
    – Mark
    May 24, 2022 at 21:50
  • @Mark the states I'm familiar with have no legal definition of automobile; they only require people to register "motor vehicles." So answering this question is not really about how any given jurisdiction defines "automobile" but about how David G. defines it.
    – phoog
    May 24, 2022 at 22:25

1 Answer 1


Not an answer for USA but for UK.

The National Motor Museum carries this:

What was the first motor car to run on the British Highway?

It is now generally accepted that the Hon. Evelyn Ellis was the first when he imported a Panhard et Levassor into Britain in June 1895 . . .

By the end of 1895, following further importations, it was estimated that there were 14 or 15 cars on Britain’s roads – a figure which had increased dramatically by 1900 to approximately 700 – 800!

Before the automobile, the mechanised road transport of the 19th century was steam powered traction engines. These were legislated by various Locomotive Acts such as the requirement for a man carrying a red flag to walk in front.

The first three, the Locomotives on Highways Act 1861, The Locomotive Act 1865 and Highways and Locomotives (Amendment) Act 1878, contained restrictive measures on the manning and speed of operation of road vehicles; they also formalised many important road concepts such as vehicle registration, registration plates, speed limits, maximum vehicle weight over structures such as bridges, and the organisation of highway authorities.

The Locomotives Act 1898 contains these clauses:


(1) All locomotives not required to be licensed under this Act shall be registered in the county in which they are ordinarily used or to be used in such manner as the county council may direct.

(2) The county council may charge such a fee not exceeding two shillings and sixpence for registration under this section as they think fit, and on registration shall provide the person applying for registration with a plate with the registered number marked upon it.

(3) The plate shall be fixed in a conspicuous position to the locomotive in respect of which it is provided, and shall not be removed without the consent of the council by whom the locomotive is registered.

So, in UK road vehicles in the 19th century carried registration plates before the arrival of the automobile.

  • That's very interesting! Where they the first to do this sort of thing? Also, as an aside, did any of the sources you found show what these registration plates look like?
    – David G.
    May 22, 2022 at 18:05
  • Easily found by an image search and the plates show the 1898 Act. The earlier Locomotive Acts don't mention registration (despite what the Wikipedia article says). By 1898 the first automobiles were on the roads and I doubt that the registration of thousands of steam traction engines was inspired by the arrival of a mere few hundreds automobiles. But the plating of vehicles for hire (as in San Antonio) is much older. This thesis states that an Ordinance of 1654 controlled the licensing and registration of cabs in London. May 22, 2022 at 18:41
  • It seems to me that an automobile powered by a steam engine is just as much an automobile as one powered by an internal combustion engine or an electric motor. Also, the Kingdom of Great Britain become the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland long before 1898 -- 97 years before, in fact. But by its own terms, the 1898 act only applies to England (as it was then called, now known as "England and Wales").
    – phoog
    May 24, 2022 at 11:00
  • @phoog the term automobile was only used from the late 19th century, traction engines were not 'automobiles'. I know that the official title of the nation changed a long time ago, but many people were informally calling it 'Britain' or 'Great Britain' until relatively recently. May 24, 2022 at 11:10
  • 1
    @WeatherVane what difference? That the UK is the only country where the official name of the nationality denotes a different territory (or a smaller territory) than does the official name of the country?
    – phoog
    Jun 6, 2022 at 7:05

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