The Curious History of Montana’s Vintage License Plates By Sean R. Heavey and A.J. Etherington

Montanans have a common experience involving license plates. Each of us has been in some distant state on vacation or business, and has spied that other Montana plate on the road. We look excitedly trying to read the first number, or pair of numbers, hoping to identify the owner’s county of residence. As I understand it, this county numbering system is unique to Montana, and while off in some far off state surrounded by strangeness and usually large amounts of people, seeing that other Montanan fosters a comfortable and warm feeling.

The prison made plate of a Montana Studebaker remains in pretty good condition after nearly 50 years on the road.

You see in Montana we distinguish the county of registration on a list of numbers from 1-56. In 1926, the Treasure State added the county identifier to the beginning of the plate numbers. Butte-Silverbow County is number 1 and the list ends with Lincoln County in northwestern Montana as number 56. In Valley County, where I call home, we are assigned the number 20, meaning that in 1926 when the system started we were the 20th most populous county in Montana. At the time the numbers went by population, even though that has changed, the county numbers remain the same. By using this unique number system Montanan's have gotten pretty good at finding people we know, or people who know people we know while out on the open road.

These retro 1970s era license plates show their age against the rusted face of a vintage truck in Northeast Montana.

Since 1914 Montana has issued plates to distinguish registered vehicles. Over time they became used for identification and law enforcement purposes. At first the plates had nothing more than the year, a unique number and the letters “MON” to represent the state. Since then the system has taken on complexities like adding identifying numbers for counties, being used as a fundraising method for charities, and lastly being made in the state prison.

The rusted iron look of this Valley County license plate matches the retina of the vehicle it adorns in Northeast Montana.

Montana issued its first “Prison Made” plate in 1928, and began, at the same time, printing Montana’s full name. Before making the plates in the Deere Lodge state prison, they manufactured the costly markers out of state. The implementation of prison made was a cost saving measure that has endured to the present day. The “Prison Made” stamp was only added in 1939 and then removed in 1957 for reasons unclear.

This prison made truck plate stands out against the rusty background in northeastern Montana. Number 34 means this plate came from Sheridan County the furthest northeast county in Montana.

Other novelties exist about Montana’s license plates that many people, even Montanans, do not entirely know or appreciate. Montana's license plate appearances are as diverse as the many forms as the state's landscapes, from its high snow-capped mountains to rough badlands and rolling prairie hills, the State’s unrivaled diversity is captured in the color and design of its plates. In the early years the plate consisted of stamped metal, but plates in 1944 consisted of pressed soy bean fiber board due to the common problem of a lack of metal from World War II. In 1950 Montana spruced up their design feature by adding the “Treasure State” slogan to the plates. In 1967 the decision was made to change it to the ever-famous slogan of “Big Sky Country”. The new name endured until 2010 when the “nostalgic” blue plate again came to be. With a plain state outline, the name Montana, “Treasure State”, the year and the unique vehicle number, the blue plate harkened back to earlier designs.

This plate from Rosebud county sits attached to a rusted out Studebaker in Eastern Montana.

Today Montana prints a wide variety of plates. The current county issues the standard plates, organization and charity plates, and military plates among many others. In Montana every registered vehicle owner has the chance to express themselves through the choice they make in which plate will be displayed on their vehicle, giving the Treasure State the distinction of having the most vanity plates in the Union.

So the next time you set out on the road, and maybe cross the path of a Montana plate you can wonder, or even know, just how far from home they may be. Perhaps it will give you that sense of familiarity it is sure to give another Montanan on that same road far from the big sky.

This "exempt" 37 plate is from Daniels County in Northeastern Montana. Exempt likely means this truck served the city or county government in its hay day.
This Valley County Plate sits attached to the bumper of an old rusted out truck near Glasgow, Montana.
Created By
Sean Heavey

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