Want to own Illinois’ very first automobile license plate? It’s on auction now

The “No. 1” plate was issued by the city of Chicago in 1904.

SHARE Want to own Illinois’ very first automobile license plate? It’s on auction now
Believed to be Illinois’ very first automobile license plate, this No. 1 plate is on auction through Sunday.

Believed to be Illinois’ first-ever automobile license plate, this No. 1 plate is on auction through Sunday.


Clip-clopping horses pulling wagons and buggies, clanging street cars, hordes of pedestrians wandering wherever they wished and automobiles weaving through the chaos.

Downtown Chicago traffic in the early 1900s has been described as a kind of hell. The streets themselves were just as awful.

“We’ve got to fix the roads or make the roads better. So we’ve got to generate some revenue to do this,” said Mike Donley, explaining the thinking at the time.

Donley is one of the owners of Donley Auctions in northwest suburban Union, which this week put on auction a collection of 600 vintage license plates and city vehicle tags from the era. They came from the estate of the late Glenview car enthusiast Lee Hartung.

The “holy grail” among the collection is a flimsy 1904, city of Chicago-issued license plate with the No. 1 stamped on it. It was, Donley said, the first automobile license plate issued in Illinois.

“The more I dove into it, the more I realized how significant this 1904 was,” Donley said. “Nobody licensed anything because there were so few cars.”

The plate was issued to Arthur J. Eddy, a well-known attorney and the founder of the Chicago Motor Club, Donley said.

At a time when drivers wore white “duster” coats to keep their suits clean, license plates were first made of aluminum but were considered too flimsy. The city soon started making them from solid brass, before the state took over the job in 1907 — which explains why city plates are so rare, Donley said.

Bidders appear to agree. As of Friday morning, the highest bid for the No. 1 license plate had reached $3,750. Bidding closes at noon Sunday, according to the auction house.

To learn more about the plate and the auction, go to: www.donleyauctions.com.

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