A rare 100-year-old porcelain New York state license plate will be going on public display soon at the Saratoga County Clerk’s Office.
The plate shows slight chipping — and that was the basic problem with porcelain license plates, which New York produced for only one year before switching to embossed steel.
The number — 53538 — appears in white numbers on a bright red enamel background.
“They thought they’d be durable, but they weren’t. They cracked,” said Lawrence DeLong, the former Clifton Park resident who donated the unusual artifact to County Clerk Kathy Marchione.
Marchione, who is moving on to a state Senate seat next week, announced that the donated plate will be put on public display at the county clerk’s office in Ballston Spa.
“This valuable gift will be given a prominent place in our office,” she said in a statement. “We are deeply grateful to Mr. DeLong for his generosity.”
DeLong, who is retired from a job with the state Assembly and has since moved to East Worcester, Otsego County, said Marchione was a friend and neighbor when he lived locally, and the donation came from a casual conversation he had with her at a gas station near Northway Exit 8 about five years ago.
“It was really just that we had a pleasant conversation,” DeLong said Wednesday. He made the donation at the time, he said, though the plate hasn’t been put on display until now.
DeLong is an avid collector of such plates. He is member of the 12,000-member Auto License Plate Collectors Association. He said he’s been collecting plates since he was 5 years old — he’s now 71. He has plates from every state and Canadian province, and a New York plate from every year since the state first began issuing auto license tags in 1909.
Auto registration began in 1901, he said, as a way of keeping track of vehicles and as a source of revenue for government. Initially, owners purchased a plate number and displayed it as they saw fit, but that gave way to uniform state-issued license tags in 1909.
Steel was replaced with porcelain in 1912 — it was actually an enamel surface on top of a steel backing. But because the enamel cracked, the state went back to steel plates only a year later, and then stuck with steel for nearly a century. In 1992, the state switched to aluminum as the basic stamped plate metal.
The color and design of New York plates have changed over the years, but one constant has been the source of manufacture — the state maximum security prison in Auburn.
It was also during 1912 that the state passed the 99,999 mark in statewide vehicle registrations, so a letter began to be added to plate assignments that had previously borne just numbers.
Today, there are 195,000 motor vehicles registered in Saratoga County alone. There are nearly 10.8 million vehicles registered in New York state.