by Hank Morris

Wheel Tax? Yup! Wheel Tax! What’s a wheel tax?

Back in 1895, 12th Ward Republican Alderman Conrad Kahler prepared an ordinance providing for a “wheel and tire tax” on vehicles of every description used in the city—including bicycles. (He got away with including bikes because he claimed that presumably there were a great many people using bikes and do not otherwise contribute to the support of the municipal government’s efforts to fund the maintenance of the streets.) At that time, wagons, carts, and buggies were the major forms of transportation, excluding streetcars, which rode on their own roadbed, albeit most of the time in the public roadway. The streetcars already were tasked with such maintenance headaches as sweeping the streets, watering to minimize dust, and plowing the snow. They were definitely paying their way and needn’t contribute further.

The wheel tax was supposed to generate the revenues needed to allow the city to maintain the streets without having to dip into the general funds to do it.

Wagons mostly used wheels with iron straps (later steel) fastened around a wooden core. These iron tires were very hard on the roads of that time. Road surfaces were comprised of dirt, macadam, stone bricks, wood planks, and very primitive asphalt. Rubber tires were few and far between, being mostly used for bicycles. John Boyd Dunlop had invented the practical balloon tire in 1887 for his son’s tricycle, but they weren’t in wide use—yet.

Here’s a list of those vehicles meeting the taxing criteria in 1920:

  • One horse wagon
  • One horse buggy
  • Two horse wagon
  • Two horse buggy or carriage
  • Three horse wagon
  • Four horse wagon
  • Motorcycles
  • Passenger Automobile, 35 hp or less
  • Passenger Automobile, more than 35 hp
  • Automobile delivery wagon, capacity one ton or less
  • Automobile truck, bus, or coach, capacity more than one ton
  • Demonstrators

In 1895, André Michelin was the first person to use pneumatic tires on an automobile, however, not successfully. It wasn’t until 1911, when Philip Strauss invented the first successful balloon tire, a combination tire and air-filled inner tube. (Cars with rubber pneumatic tires were of no concern this early in time, and hard rubber tires were extremely rare.) So when Alderman Kahler raised his concerns about wheels digging up the streets of Chicago, a wheel tax made sense.

Kahler, thinking ahead, suggested that, as wagons’ ability to carry loads was increasing, they used wider tires to support these heavier loads and, thus, vehicles with the thicker tires should pay more because their tires would cause more damage to the road surface than that caused by thinner tires.

Concern about automobiles and a wheel tax on them was a 20th Century concern. The first automotive license plates were issued by New York State in 1901. There were only 15,000 motor vehicles in the United States—Period!

The New York law stipulated that “Every automobile or motor vehicle shall have the separate initials of the owner’s name placed upon the back, thereof, in a conspicuous place.” The law did not stipulate license plates, per se, and people were free to take paint brushes and initial the bodies of their cars.

Many owners, instead, made their own primitive plate–oak shingles, flattened tin cans, and saddle leather– with the owner’s initials stamped or painted on.

In 1903, Massachusetts became the first state to issue license plates. They were made of porcelain enamel and were issued for 4-year periods. They bore no date, simply the words “Mass. Auto Register” and the license number.

It wasn’t until 1907 that the Illinois State Legislature passed the Motor Vehicle Act. For a one-time $2 fee per vehicle, a motorist received a circular aluminum seal with a registration number to affix to the vehicle, known as a dashboard disc. As in New York, it was the motorist’s responsibility to furnish license plates. So, as in the case of the 1901 New York situation, the design and manufacture of one’s license plate was left to the motorist. This included size, materials, and colors.

Illinois didn’t issue its own plates until 1911.

Viewers have seen Mike Wolf and Frank Fritz discover two of these “ancient” user-made license plates on the American Pickers History Channel TV show. They have greater value now, as collectables, than when they simply represented that the tax had been paid.

From 1901 to 1910, individual states were not required to respect the legality of each other’s licensing. So, motorists that traveled in other states were required to purchase each state’s license, or be ticketed and/or arrested. A person living in Washington D.C. had at least three different plates. There was even a mechanism sold which rotated the plates to show the correct plate in the proper state. And you thought James Bond was so cleaver.

It wasn’t until 1913 that license plates carried dates. Until then, there was no easy way to indicate the valid dates. This was a mess for the police of your own and other states to determine if the car was legally licensed to operate in that particular state, or not. After all, a license isn’t valid if the wheel tax was not paid up. And, in many states, the car owners were still making their own license plates, not the states.

As more and more motor vehicles plied the nation’s roads, states felt the need to identify whose plates were which. So the manufacture of the one of a kind, home-made license plate had to give way to a more standardized version.

Before 1956, there were 34 different plate lengths and 15 different heights in use in the United States, alone, and an almost unlimited number of dimensions, world-wide. Is it any wonder that the car manufacturers didn’t/couldn’t provide standardized mounting? The states got together with the car manufacturers and standardized on 6 inches high by 12 inches wide with a maximum of 7 characters, the standards of today.

The do-it-yourself plates used whatever materials the car-owner had available. During World War II, the need for metals forced the State to use other materials. A soybean-based plastic was used from 1943-1948, when the Secretary of State learned of a cow taking a bite out of the license plate, and metal plates “suddenly” returned. Aluminum, copper, and steel have been the mainstay of license plates across the states. By the way, Arizona used copper for its plates until the cost of copper created wide-spread theft of the plates for the money.

What does this have to do with Rogers Park and West Ridge? Nothing, really. It’s just too interesting a story to pass up. And, most of us still have to pay our annual wheel tax. We just didn’t know that we were doing so.

For a fascinating look at the history of the Illinois license plates, Jesse White has one on his website. Just go to