Getting to Know . . . Vintage License Plate Toppers

Getting to Know . . . Vintage License Plate Toppers

Nostalgia—a passionate fascination with our past history—will never go out of style. One of the most appealing and intriguing examples of nostalgia is the interest in the automobile and all things connected to this unique form of transportation. The fascinating history and evolution of the automobile is a unique part of the American story, offering collectors and vintage enthusiasts a variety of topics to explore and pursue.

History and Evolution of License Plate Toppers

One aspect of automotive history that offers an excellent opportunity to collectors, decorators, and vintage-lovers alike is the vintage license plate topper (hereafter referred to as “toppers”). These wonderful pieces of history got their start in the 1920s and ‘30s when individual car owners as well as organizations, companies, municipalities, and institutions sought ways to promote themselves, to advertise their services to the public, to boost tourism, and to make their existence known on a grander scale.

The license plate topper, a small sign that could be mounted to the top (or in some cases the bottom) of a license plate, was originally designed to add a bit of flair and style to a vehicle. They are a predecessor to the bumper stickers that adorn many cars on the road today.

Photo 1: Just a handful of the different types of license plate toppers made, all found in our shop now.

Originally, toppers were usually made of tin and this material was a staple for toppers through the 1960s. With the advent of rationing during World War II, a few rare toppers can even be found made out of fiberboard. Later, some toppers were also made out of cast aluminum in the 1950s and ‘60s. Porcelain enamel was also a rare material used to create license plate toppers. Photo 2 below shows examples of these different materials.

Photo 2: Examples of the different materials with which license plate toppers were made. From top to bottom: porcelain, fiberboard, tin, and cast aluminum.

Currently, however, many reproductions are being made of porcelain and cast aluminum and a collector has to be on the lookout for these to protect themselves. Often times, these reproductions are direct copies of existing and authentic tin toppers. Reproduction or fantasy (i.e., never having been produced) toppers can often be spotted by their sloppy font or graphics or they use new, computer-generated fonts that were not around during the hey-day of toppers.

Photo 3: Top: Authentic topper made of tin. Found in our shop now. Bottom: Example of a porcelain reproduction topper, found on eBay. Notable distinguishable traits on the reproduction include fuzzy graphics, the font is "bubbly" and not crisp, it is missing words/letters (left side is totally missing!), and the often found fake chips to the porcelain.

Some early toppers often advertised the dealership’s name where a car was purchased or they might be simply embossed with a town name. Political-related toppers can also be found from quite early. For example, President Hoover has a wide variety of different examples to promote his election in 1929 and 1933, and both Repeal and Uphold the 18th Amendment (banning alcohol sales nationwide) can be found from the 1920s and early 1930s. These, of course, make spectacular bar décor today.

Photo 4: Examples of political toppers, including those to support Roosevelt and Hoover for US President, support for the political movement of repealing the 18th Amendment, and general support of the Democratic Party.

During and after World War II, patriotic toppers became a popular sight on cars. These toppers were usually quite graphic, often adorned with the iconic “V” for Victory, American Flag, appeals for peace, or interesting graphics of international leaders. These themes continued to be popular throughout the license plate topper era.

Photo 5: Examples of patriotic license plate toppers, featuring some great Americana graphics such as the American Flag and Statue of Liberty.

Commercial enterprises soon recognized that toppers were an effective and creative way to advertise and promote a business or organization. As time passed, non-commercial and non-corporate individuals also began seeing the toppers as a way to display their interests, hobbies and even their personalities. License plate toppers became a popular way to advertise places the car’s owner had visited (national parks, monuments or other tourist attractions) or businesses that were patronized.

AAA Insurance Company offered toppers for their members, showcasing and often designed in the shape of the states where the members resided. Toppers were used to designate membership in specific clubs (often car clubs), fraternal organizations, etc. They were also used for specific occupations such as members of religious clergy, fire department officials or perhaps ambulance and emergency medical personnel to identify their vehicles.

Photo 6: Examples of license plate toppers from various organizations, groups, and occupations including AAA, car clubs, dentists, fire departments, and Chicago's Very Own: WGN News.

As their popularity grew, decorative toppers advertised companies, products and services ranging from oil companies and service stations to other non-automotive related entities like grocery stores or farm/agricultural suppliers. Police chiefs, doctors, nurses and pharmacists used toppers to declare their status…..or perhaps to avoid speeding or parking tickets.

Photo 7: A few examples of the many gas and oil related license toppers that are out there to collect. Photo includes toppers from Putnam Oil Co., Mobil, Tydol, Pure, and Standard Oil Co.

Collecting License Plate Toppers

Vintage license plate toppers are highly sought after by collectors today. These gems can be found in antique stores, online auctions and web sites, flea markets, swap meets, and license plate shows, to name a few. Although some are quite rare and the ones you see, you might never see again!

One of the most appealing aspects of starting a collection of toppers is the wide variety of subjects they promote, allowing you to choose a specific category or theme, or simply try to collect all that you see! Collectors often focus on locations that matter to them, be it their home state, vacations they’ve been on, schools they’ve attended, or places of fond memories.

For example, if your interest is visiting America’s national parks, proudly collecting advertising from places that one has visited (and doing so on cars with stickers, decals, magnets and other forms of identification) is a tradition that began with toppers in the early part of the twentieth century. National parks, representing many of America’s favorite destinations, quickly became a part of the trend. A wide range of toppers were available to drivers hoping to share their love of national parks. More than 25 parks nationwide have featured at least two designs in various styles, shapes and colors, ranging from the 1930s through the 1950s. Through the years Yellowstone Park in Wyoming has featured more than a dozen different topper designs.

If you’d like to learn more about the history of National Park license plate toppers, check out this article from the National Park Service which might jump start your efforts to compile your own National Park license plate topper collection.

Photo 8: Examples of license plate toppers from National and State Parks, including Mesa Verde, Pikes Peak, Niagara Falls, Canada's National Parks, Hot Springs, Royal Gorge, and Lookout Mountain.

For those with school pride, a collection of high school or college toppers might be the perfect fit for you. For example, one of our collection specialties is toppers from the University of Illinois (our alma mater). Many schools created license plate toppers to cheer on their teams and spread pride wherever the cars of their students and alumni drove.

Photo 9: Examples of the University of Illinois Fighting Illini license plate toppers in our personal collection.

Decorative Uses

Today, license plate toppers have also found a delightful second life as vintage home décor, and these nostalgic relics can be cleverly combined with other vintage pieces to add a fun, nostalgic touch to any living space. Whether incorporated into gallery walls alongside classic car emblems and road signs or displayed as standalone whimsical accents sprinkled throughout your home, these toppers offer endless decorating possibilities.

Mount a particularly eye-catching topper above the mantel as a focal point, allowing its wonderful patina and stylized graphics to inject your space with timeless cool. Or cluster an eclectic array on a bare wall, creating an instant vintage vignette brimming with personality and conversation-starting appeal. From rustic dens to modern lofts, license plate toppers provide the perfect way to commemorate treasured road trips and fond memories while elevating your home with undeniable charm.

Photo 10: License plate toppers are great small pieces to add to gallery walls to bring them to the next level.

Beyond their vintage flair, these toppers also offer a tangible connection to the open road, stirring memories of cross-country family adventures and spontaneous detours off the beaten path. Imagine accenting a topper display with your own collection of sought-after matchbooks from long-forgotten roadside motels or an assortment of whimsical trinkets picked up at quirky Americana stops along your travels. With each glance, you'll be transported back to those freewheeling days of unscripted exploration.

Let these incredible gems from the open road pave the way for endless nostalgic reminiscence and soulful conversations about life's most epic journeys. More than mere décor, a thoughtfully curated license plate topper display has the power to elevate your home into a deeply personal autobiography commemorating all of your incredible miles traveled. With each glance, these vintage accents will reignite your thirst for adventure and quest for the unknown, fueling an insatiable wanderlust that beckons you toward new horizons. Surrounding yourself with these treasured keepsakes ensures the spirit of exploration remains ever-present, constantly inspiring your next grand voyage into the great wide open.

Toppers and Vintage Collectors: A Match Made in Heaven

Collectors, historians and anyone merely interested in the nostalgic appeal of vintage license plate toppers can all agree that these quaint items represent an important slice of American automotive history.

People naturally enjoy collecting and sharing items from their childhood or a certain time period, and toppers definitely fit the bill by invoking memories from an earlier era. No matter what theme you choose as the basis for your personal topper collection, these appealing pieces of automotive history can be a colorful and imaginative way to display your personality with an emphasis on your most cherished interests.

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