While the state did not require motor vehicles to be licensed until 1915, there were parishes and cities that did, according to avid license plate collector Charlton Bajon.
As early as 1912, the cities of New Orleans, Monroe, Alexandria, Shreveport, Ponchatoula and Houma, along with the parishes of St. John and St. Mary began requiring them, he said.
“They were made of porcelain,” Bajon said as he showed the three early New Orleans plates made of the glossy material in his collection.
“You had to go to the courthouse in your parish and tell them who you were and that you had a car you wanted to register,” Bajon said. “You had to go home and make your own plate with the number you were assigned.”
There were no requirements or standardization of those early plates, he continued, so people made them out of whatever material they wanted. Metal, leather and even cardboard were used.
The City of Alexandria continued to require its own plates until 1920, the amiable pharmacist said.
Plates from the state’s first year of issuance are among the rarest in Bajon’s collection.
“In 1915, only 10,000 pairs of plates were made,” he said, explaining the state required front and rear license plates. “All we (he and a network of other license plate collectors) can find are about 50 plates.”
Most were melted down for the war effort during the first World War and those that survived that war were scrapped for World War II, “so most of them are gone.”
“I’ve been able to get four for my collection,” Bajon said. “I don’t believe anybody in the country has been able to collect that many.”
From that first year through 1931, the State of Louisiana contracted with different companies to manufacture its license plates, he said he’s discovered in his extensive research into the subject.
“It seems, from all I’ve found, that the state Legislature decided licenses would be made by inmates at Angola,” Bajon said, referring to the Louisiana State Penitentiary. “They were making plates for a lot of other states and countries as well.”
His eyes lit up as he entered the next phase of his discussion of license plates, the pelican’s presence or lack thereof, on Louisiana plates.
“The pelican first appeared in 1932 when Angola began making them,,” Bajon said. “From then until 1963 it remained on the state’s plates, except for 1940 and 1941 (there was no plate made specifically for 1943) and 1962 and 1963, when over a million plates were issued.”
The problem for the state keeping the pelican on plates was that with the system being used at the time – three numbers, then the pelican, then three more numbers – was that after the one million mark was hit, the pelican had to be removed to allow for additional numbers, the license plate aficionado said.
Another break occurred in 1943 when the state issued a sticker instead of a plate, Bajon said. His collection is so complete, he even has one of the stickers – unused. He believed finding one would be impossible.
“I never thought that I could find one of those,” Bajon said. “Through eBay, I met a guy, another collector, who was telling me he had one and that he was beginning to get rid of his collection.”
Inquisitive by nature, he asked the other collector why he was giving it up.
“I’m just disgusted,” the man told Bajon, because he could not find a 1915 or a 1916 plate for his collection, so he assumed he never would be able to complete his collection.
“He told me he had bought a 1941 Mercury from a lady,” Bajon said. “During the war, her husband or a brother was in the war and she’d gotten the sticker in the mail.”
“She had no idea what to do with it,” he continued. “So she placed it in an envelope and put it in the glove compartment.”
With childlike wonderment, Bajon exclaimed the sticker was still in the glove compartment when the fellow collector bought it.
“Oh, Lord, have mercy,” was his reaction several months later when the man showed up at his pharmacy with two of his grandchildren, the treasured sticker in his hand.
It’s the one item in Bajon’s collection he doesn’t proudly display in a back room of the pharmacy.
“It’s sealed in Plexiglas and kept in a safe place,” the chatty pharmacist said slyly, a gleam in his eye.
(Editor’s note: This is the second in a series on Chalton Bajon’s license plate collection. Each week, the Plaquemine Post South will continue to present the history of automobile license plates in Louisiana.)