Florida Memory is now digitizing two ledgers containing Florida’s earliest automobile registration records, dating from 1905 to 1917. Although the project is still in progress, we have already found some fascinating information to share in celebration of Collector Car Appreciation Day on July 10th.
In the 21st Century, vehicle registration seems like a given. After you buy a car, you register it and display the license plate issued to you. It hasn’t always worked that way, however. Florida first began requiring residents to register their vehicles in 1905. Because the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles did not yet exist, it was the responsibility of the Department of State to issue the registrations for automobile owners. Auto owners would send an application to the Department of State with the make, model, horsepower, and factory number of their car, as well as the name and address of the individual(s) or business to which the vehicle was to be registered. All of this information was recorded in a ledger, along with a registration number assigned by the Department. Once the registrant received the certificate, the registration number had to be displayed on the rear of the vehicle. The earliest license plates were often handmade by the owner out of wood, metal, or leather.
Many of the automobiles listed in these records were manufactured by familiar companies like Buick, Ford, Cadillac, and Olds. However, many early vehicle manufacturing companies remain unheard-of, and even bizarre, to the modern car owner. For example, did you know that the White Sewing Machine Company also produced automobiles? Although the company originally prospered as a manufacturer of sewing machines, it also produced agricultural machines and engines, which led to its involvement in the automobile industry.
By 1900 the White Sewing Machine Company had produced four types of steam-powered cars, inspired by a semi-flash boiler invented by founder Thomas H. White’s son and heir, Rollin White. One of these steamers, a Touring Car style, was the first car registered in Florida to Standard Oil co-founder and influential Florida railroad tycoon, Henry M. Flagler. Flagler spent the latter half of his life developing Florida into an “American Riviera”by constructing railroads and hotels, donating to hospitals and schools, and building up communities like Palm Beach and Miami.
Famous names appear frequently in the registration records, but automobile ownership expanded quickly beyond the wealthiest upper crust of Florida society. Electricians, surgeons, attorneys, merchants, and many others are represented in the collection also. Genealogists will find the records useful for discovering early auto owners among their Floridian ancestors. Local historians will be able to find out who had the first registered vehicles in their communities. Automobile enthusiasts will now have a wealth of data about the earliest cars on the road in Florida, including many of the race cars that once zoomed along Daytona and Ormond beaches. In case you were wondering, for example, the average horsepower rating of a registered Florida vehicle in 1905 was a whopping 10.5!
The Florida Automobile Registration Records will be fully digitized this fall, and will be permanently displayed on our Collections page. Follow the Florida Memory Blog to get the latest information on this and other projects underway at the State Library and Archives of Florida!