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Manufacturers of New Mexico License Plates

Contrary to common belief, New Mexico’s license plates were not always manufactured at the State Penitentiary. Private companies were contracted to make the plates for the first twenty-two years prior to the Penitentiary taking over the job in the latter half of 1933, beginning with the manufacture of plates for 1934. The next 65 years saw the prison plate shop turn out many of the state’s most iconic plates until losing the job to a private company in 1999. New Mexico’s complete plate manufacturing history will be found in the NMTHP’s Early New Mexico License Plates book, but a brief synopsis of that history is given below.


1912-1913 All evidence indicates that New Mexico’s first-issue plates were made by the S.G. Adams Co. of St. Louis.

1914-1919 Similarities in the dies and other design features hint strongly that the 1914-1919 plates (excepting only the “thin” variety 1918 plates) were manufactured by the Grimm Stamp & Badge Co. of St. Louis, Missouri, which is known to have made the 1924 New Mexico tags.

1920–1923 Contemporary newspaper reports stated that a company in Los Angeles, California was contracted to manufacture New Mexico’s porcelain plates. Although the name of the company was not mentioned, its identity can be inferred with reasonable certainty as being the California Metal Enameling Company.

1924 When the decision was made to abandon porcelain plates and return to embossed steel plates for 1924, the state selected the Grimm Stamp & Badge Co. of St. Louis, Missouri, to make them.

1925 Although written documentation has not been located, it is presumed that the 1925 plates were also made by Grimm. The inference comes from the fact that the size, shape, layout, and dies are identical between the two years, despite the added “FRONT” and “REAR” designations for ’25.

1926 In a departure from past practices, New Mexico arranged to have its plates made at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in 1926 rather than having them made by a commercial company.
1927 The contract for 1927 plates was awarded to the Gopher Stamp and Manufacturing Company of St. Paul, Minnesota.

1928 The Gopher Stamp & Die Company of St. Paul, Minnesota (presumably the same company as in 1927, but with a slightly changed name) received the contract for the 1928 plates.

1929-1930 Available evidence indicates that plates for these two years were again made by Gopher Stamp & Die

1931 An August 4, 1930, a press release from the motor vehicle bureau announced that a contract was awarded to the Gopher Stamp & Die Company of St. Paul for the 1931 plates.

1932 Under highly questionable circumstances that cost the State Comptroller his job, the contract for 1932 tags was awarded to Shwayder Trunk Company of Denver, Colorado. (A thoroughly detailed account of the ensuing scandal is given in Early New Mexico License Plates.) For reasons entirely unrelated to that hubbub, the Shwayder name was later dropped and the company renamed Samsonite, under which it is best known as one of the world’s largest manufacturers of luggage.

1933 In August of 1932 the State Comptroller announced that the contract for the 1933 plates had been awarded to the Gopher Stamp & Die Company of St. Paul, Minnesota.

1934–1998 Acquisition of equipment to manufacture license plates at the State Penitentiary was approved in February 1933, and was purchased from the John Wald Co. of Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. By August the machinery had arrived and was being set up at the prison. For the next 65 years, with only one exception, convicts stamped out all of New Mexico’s license plates, and did a good job of it. The quality and appearance of plates produced during this period are considered to have been very good, and included some of New Mexico’s most attractive plates, especially during the 1930's and 1940's.

1953 Legislative Plates The one exception mentioned above to the prison making the license plates occurred in 1953 when the Hal Wolfe Screw Machine Products Co. of Portland, Oregon made special legislative license plates for State Representatives and Senators. The tags were unsolicited and were provided as a gift to the solons with the apparent motive of getting the company’s foot in the door to manufacture all of the state’s plates. The attempt, however, was to no avail.

1999–2019 The prison kept the job of stamping out license plates until a bean counter in Santa Fe concluded in 1998 that a commercial company in Canada could make the plates cheaper than the convicts. The Motor Vehicle Division agreed, and entered into a contract with Waldale Manufacturing, Ltd., of Amherst, Nova Scotia, effective January 1, 1999. Since that time all New Mexico plates have been made by the Waldale company.
New Mexico State Penitentiary License Plate and Road Sign Manufacturing Plant, November 1955. Courtesy John Wald Co.
Comparison of 1912-1913 New Mexico and 1912 New Hampshire plates

A side-by-side comparison of plates of the same era from these two states shows that they were made by the same manufacturer. Though the N.M. tag is smaller by ½", note the folded and crimped edges, placement of bolt holes and slots, identical dies used for the serial numbers and the green-on-white color scheme. One of the most striking features is that the backs were hand painted on both of them, with prominent brush strokes showing. And on both plates the brush strokes are horizontal along the top and bottom edges, and vertical in the middle. Although not enough of the N.M. tags survive with original paint to find it, the maker’s mark of the S.G. Adams Co. in St. Louis is found on many of the N.H. plates. N.H. photos courtesy Eric Tanner, N.M. by the author.



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