A long line of people seeking low-digit tags at the Georgetown DMV. (Delaware Department of Motor Vehicles)

Only in the First State: Our obsession with low-digit tags

Ken MammarellaCulture, Government, Headlines

A long line of people seeking low-digit tags at the Georgetown DMV. (Delaware Department of Motor Vehicles)

A long line of people seeking low-digit tags at the Georgetown DMV. (Delaware Department of Motor Vehicles)

This week is prime time for one of Delaware’s odder rituals: a hunt for low-digit tags.

The Delaware Department of Motor Vehicles every year runs an online lottery and in-person release of low-digit tags for motor vehicles.

This year’s online lottery drew 17,408 entries and is already closed, but the last two in-person events are Thursday. If you’re interested, you might want to get to the DMV early. Way early.

The first two people in line for Tuesday’s release at the Georgetown DMV office got there at 8 p.m. Monday – 12 hours ahead of the office opening. They brought a generator to keep themselves warm, according to a post on Delaware License Plates, one of two private Facebook groups focused on, well, Delaware license plates (aka tags). The other one is called Delaware License Plate Collectors.

To some, low-digit tags imply deep roots in Delaware, suggesting they’ve been passed down for generations – as far back as 1909, when Delaware first issued license plates. The cachet starts with a single 1, for the governor. The lieutenant governor gets 2, and the secretary of state gets 3.

To some, the numbers have personal meanings (say 12787, if you were born on Delaware Day).

And to some, money is a lure. One family’s collection of 17 Delaware tags – including three with just one digit – was worth more than $3 million in 2016, Philadelphia magazine reported.

The owner of No. 5 turned down $1 million for it, fan Jordan Irazabal told DelawareLive.com in 2020.


The love of low-digit tags

Delaware is one of a small number of states where residents share a fixation with low-digit tags.

The Delaware License Plates Facebook group has 10,000 members, and Delaware License Plate Collectors has 1,100. A business called Delaware Tag Traders has 5,000 Facebook followers.

Irazabal’s TheDelaware3000.org has 5,000 Facebook followers interested in its collection of photos of 3,000 low-digit tags. There is probably a lot of duplication in those numbers, but they reflect a significant amount for a state with only a million people.

William D. Emmert and John T. Wakefield have sold hundreds of low digit tags, mostly online, over the past 20 years, they write on Delaware Tag Traders. They sell 35 to 50 at auction each year.

This week, they are listing about 100, with the most expensive being 1471, for $20,000.

Although the biggest draw is low numbers, Delaware complicates the situation by starting some tags with letters: C for commercial, PC for passenger car, T for trailer, MC for motorcycle, RT for recreational trailer and RV for recreational vehicle.

Some fans therefore want sets – matching or related numbers across or within the various categories.

Wilson’s Auction in Lincoln maintains a page on its prices for Delaware tags, and highlights this year include $16,500 for RT3 and $14,200 for T40, T45 and T46. Each.

The DMV’s online lotteries, which end Friday, involve 1,585 tags each day, of various types.

The in-person events include 100 tags. The final two in-person events are at the DMV offices near Wilmington and Delaware City, starting at 8 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 9. Or earlier, if you count the wait.

Delaware’s stance on license tags includes several outliers, according to a lively history of license tags on the DMV site, credited largely to fan Dave Lincoln. It’s the only state that allows private manufacture of plates for legal registration purposes (the Delaware Historic Plate Co.), the only state to keep porcelain plates in the modern era and the only state with non-standard size plates in current use.

Meanwhile, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control in 2016 decided to copy this aura with an annual auction of low-digit surf tags. “Details should be out in the next week or two,” a department representative said of the 2023 event.

DNREC in 2022 started raffling off a low-digit hunting license at the Delaware State Fair. “For some reason, in Delaware, low numbers are always a collectible item,” DNREC Director of Fish and Wildlife Pat Emory told Delaware Public Media.

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