MHS Resources: Manitoba 1912 License Plate Project
by Gordon Goldsborough
The story begins in the late 1990s. My wife and I had recently moved to Winnipeg and had built a new home. Our yard was low-lying and prone to be wet so we decided to raise it up by a foot or two. We put a sign on our boulevard, seeking clean soil from passing trucks on their way to the Brady landfill. Over time, numerous truckloads were dumped and we learned by hard experience that the definition of “clean” varied enormously. Loads would frequently contain concrete chunks, scrap metal, and other garbage. So we began to check each load as it was dumped to separate these materials before using the soil to raise our yard.
One day, my wife was digging in a newly arrived pile of soil. Her shovel struck something metallic-sounding. She found a small, rectangular piece of metal, about 4½ inches wide and 10 inches long. It had mud caked all over it so she couldn’t tell what exactly it was but, what caught her eye was a large white #4 peeking out from the mud. Curious, she cleaned it off and found a three-digit number: #614. To the left of the number was what looked like a bison, below which were the letters MAN, and below those letters was another, smaller number, mostly obscured with only the number 2 visible. The numbers were not painted on the metal but were embedded into a white and black coating on the metal that looked like ceramic. She showed it to me. A search online confirmed our suspicions. It was a Manitoba automobile license plate from 1912.
Why was an old license plate in soil dumped in our yard? Our working theory, based on what I was told by someone familiar with construction in downtown Winnipeg, is that in the early 20th century, it was very common for waste metals to be used as fill. I’m told that, today, when the City of Winnipeg raises a very old section of road or sidewalk, collectors gather to see if there are any treasures hidden below them. Over the past several years, at least two people have told me they have found old license plates protruding out of the banks of the Red River in the older parts of the city. Conceivably, someone had thrown away this license plate when it became obsolete, in 1913, and it was used as fill in an area that was subsequently dug up for some new construction project. The removed soil, along with the plate, was on its way to the landfill when the trucker saw our sign and dumped it in our yard.
The first automobile arrived in Winnipeg in 1899. It was a three-wheeled vehicle, powered by gasoline, and brought here by a fellow named Edgar Kenrick, a chemistry professor at St. John’s College. In early 1904, a dozen early car owners met at Kenrick’s home to discuss the formation of a club, to be called the Winnipeg Automobile Club. (It would become today’s CAA Manitoba.) The number of cars on city streets grew rapidly as most of the wealthy Winnipeggers replaced their horse-drawn carriages with automobiles. By 1908, it was clear that some form of identification was needed on the cars so the provincial government began requiring owners to install a plate of their own design on the car, bearing a number assigned to them by the government. Many of these early plates were made of leather to which metal numbers were attached.
In 1911, the Manitoba government decided to issue everyone with a standardized plate. They were metal covered by blue ceramic in which white numbers were embedded. The following year, the ceramic plates were black with white numbers, then white with black numbers in 1913, and orange with black numbers in 1914. Early experience with these porcelain-covered metal plates was that they did not stand up well. Flying stones from the roads would often damage the porcelain surface, making the number illegible. Consequently, in 1915, they went with an all-metal design. Each year, a car owner would receive a new plate bearing the same number as the preceding year. When a car was sold, the plate would typically go with it. And the numbers were issued in order so, the lower the number on the plate, the earlier the automobile had been registered.
Coming back to my 1912 plate #614, my curiosity was piqued and one of my first thoughts about it was “I wonder who this plate belonged to and what kind of vehicle was it on?” I resolved to check at the provincial archives, as I assumed they would have automobile registration records from the provincial government. Unfortunately, this proved to be a death-end. I was told that all license records had been destroyed in a fire at the Motor Vehicle Branch in the 1950s. So I set the matter of the plate aside.
Several months later, I was pursuing an entirely different line of historical research, about a fellow named Edward L. Drewry, who had been one of the early waterfowl hunters at Delta Marsh. Mr. Drewry was one of Winnipeg’s earliest beer brewers, operating a brewery beside the Redwood Bridge. Drewry was an inveterate collector and, over the course of his life, compiled at least 20 large scrapbooks that contained a wealth of information about all facets of his life. Among their contents were Mr. Drewry’s first pair of long pants when he was a boy.
Not surprisingly, Drewry had been one of Manitoba’s first automobile owners and he was obviously a keen automobilist. He subscribed to one of the first magazines for automobile enthusiasts, called “Gas Power Age.” And, lo and behold, one of the items in the Drewry scrapbooks was a 62-page booklet, published by Gas Power Age, entitled “List of Licensed Automobile Owners, Dealers, and Liverymen” dated 31 July 1912. For each plate number, up to #3999, it listed the name of the registered owner, their address, and the automobile model for which the plate was issue. The little booklet was exactly what I needed to identify the owner of my plate #614!
I learned that #614 was issued for a Franklin automobile owned by a gentleman named Elisha Hutchings. A little more research at the archives told me that Mr. Hutchings had been a prominent Winnipegger in his day. He came here in 1876 and established a saddlery business. He did very well in business, so much so that, by 1910, he was said to be among the city’s 19 millionaires.
A few more examples:
I thought the booklet could prove useful in other ways so I transferred its entire contents into a spreadsheet and, gradually over the next couple of years, I researched each of the automobile owners listed in it, so I could learn something about these early car enthusiasts. By cross-referencing the list with census records for 1911, I could add their age and birthplace, marital status, ethnicity, religion, and occupation. Based on data for the people I could find in the census, I calculated that the average automobile owner in 1912 was 42½ years old. The vast majority were men (but there were several women among them) and 82% of them were married.
When looking at the location where the cars were located, 56% were in Winnipeg; the remaining 44% were in Brandon, smaller towns or rural communities around the province. That is interesting because Winnipeg contained only about 30% of the provincial population at that time, which means the city contained proportionately more automobiles than other parts of the province – perhaps not surprisingly given that it was the centre of industry and government.
The most popular car model was a Ford, at 20% of the total. And there were other familiar names like Cadillac, Oldsmobile, Packard, and Studebaker. McLaughlin was a predecessor to Buick. But many of the common auto models in 1912 are completely unknown today, with names like EMF, Hupp, Mitchell, Overland, Reo, and Russell. One vehicle, licensed to a fellow named John Ivison, was described as a “vacuum cleaner.” Interestingly, there were several electric cars among the registered vehicles, made by at least nine manufacturers.
The 1912 automobile database has had several interesting uses. For example, historical photos taken in 1912 that show automobiles are often sharp enough that it is possible to read their license plate numbers. A friend of mine had a postcard showing a car parked next to an apartment block on Hargrave Street. Its plate number #112 told us the owner was John E. Coulter, a prominent Winnipeg doctor. We know that, in 1912, Dr. Coulter did not live in this vicinity nor was his office located here. Perhaps he was making a house call on one of his patients when the photographer took a photo of the street?
Today, early porcelain license plates are much sought by collectors, and command prices in the hundreds of dollars. I spread the word that if people having Manitoba 1912 plates in their collection would tell me its number, I could tell them about what vehicle had carried it. To date, I have heard about 149 surviving plates, or about 2% of the total issued by mid-1912. What is fascinating about these “survivors” is the demographics of where they came from. I said before that 56% of the plates issued in 1912 were in Winnipeg. In contrast, only 28% of the survivors were on Winnipeg automobiles. In other words, plates on automobiles registered in rural Manitoba are far more likely to have survived to the present than those in Winnipeg. This is probably because it was less likely in rural Manitoba for license plates to be dumped into a landfill. Instead, thrifty farmers used old license plates in a more conspicuous way, to patch holes in their wooden granaries. Over the years, plates that were once viewed as garbage are now highly prized collector’s items.
Looking back on the amount of work that it took me to reconstruct what I know now about automobiling in 1912, my wife has lamented several times that, if she knew then what she knows now, what the bent piece of metal that she found buried in our yard would lead to, she would have put it back and never shown it to me.
Page revised: 1 April 2017