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The History of Licensing Before There was a DMV

When looking at how huge the landmass that the United States of America is, it becomes imperative for anyone who has a job to own a automobile because you might have to drive 25 miles just to go to work. Public transport isn’t much of a solution. In fact, having plans to take advantage of the public transport system might make your commuting from your home to work, a nightmare. For you to own a car and drive it you need a driver’s license. These days obtaining a driving license is not much of a hassle. You only need to take a driving test and a written test based on the rules provided by the DMV. And if you pass you have your license. But there was a time when there were cars on the road but the DMV did not exist. It would be interesting to know the history of licensing, to know how licensing was done before DMV. In this article we give you the history of licensing before there was a DMV.

When the automobiles were first introduced, it was considered a dangerous machine. Often referred to as the “Motor Wagon”, there were a number of ordinances passed in several states including California, which required the vehicles to pull off to the side of the road if a horse carriage or for that matter any other kind of vehicles passed.

By 1901 the State statutes authorized city or country authorities to issue licenses for all types of wheeled vehicles. These included cycles, automobiles and wagon carts.

In 1905 the Secretary of State got the power to register and license all kinds of motor cars. This system helped to establish a uniform way of registration and licensing of all cars across a state, rather than having separate systems for each state. The owner of the automobile was provided a circular tag for a fee of $2 as his license. The tag later became octagonal and sometimes also came with scalloped edges. The tag was supposed to be displayed prominently on the vehicle. It was also mandatory to display the license number on the rear of the vehicle. It had to be painted in black on a white background with the letters being 3-inch-high. It was also quite popular to paint the number on the headlight lenses. Before the registration documents were provided the condition of the lamps, brakes and horn were thoroughly examined.

The first vehicle to get registered under the California state law was a steamer from San Francisco. However this was not the first vehicle in the state of California. There were already 117 motor vehicles on the roads of San Francisco alone. The growth of the automobile industry could be understood by the fact that by 1905 there were a total of 17,015 registered vehicles in California.

The State Secretary handled the task of vehicle registration till 1913 when a legislature was brought in to transfer the duty to the State Treasurer. Simultaneously, the Engineering Department, later to be named the Department of Public Works and Department of Transportation, became the caretaker of vehicle records.

This is a rough sketch of the history of licensing before the DMV was created.

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