I am always intreged with things from the past and everytime I visit the home of a friend, Kitty Umbraco, it is like stepping back in time. During my last visit, I noticed quite a collection of License Plate Toppers. If you are not sure just what they are, then please read on and Kitty will explain about the Toppers and why it is she loves to collect them.
License plate toppers were popular from the 1930’s till the 1980’s. In the 1980’s they evolved into the license plate holders that advertise the dealership’s name where you purchased your car from or they were used to describe an organization that you belong to.
License plate toppers were also a popular way to advertise places that you had visited such as Boulder Dam (currently named Hoover Dam); or businesses that you patronize such as Page’s Garage in Wells, Nevada. Even AAA Insurance Company of Nevada (or AAA Insurance Company of California, Arizona, Oregon, New York, etc.) even offered Toppers for their members. If you were a part of a specific Club, such as car clubs and fraternal organizations, the Armed Forces, which used Toppers to let cars on Base, such as the Reno Army Base, which today it is know in the City of Reno as Stead.
Besides the Toppers, they would also use scan codes that where placed on the front Windshield. Here in Nevada during 1964, Centennial toppers were produced in blue & silver and were sent to those getting new license plates. They were used to advertise our State’s Centennial 1864-1964. Some of the toppers were used for specific occupations such as a Priest or religious clergy, fire officials, or ambulance personal that use their own private vehicles when they are working so that they would not be ticketed. But the most important reason for the Toppers was that people were proud of their occupations and didn’t mind letting other people know who they were. Today, clergy use paper (cardboard) signs in the front window.
License plate toppers have gone the way of dinosaurs because of the sleek design of cars these days and barely have enough room for license plate holders. The older cars with the big hump backs had the license plates sitting out with plenty of room for toppers. Most toppers would fit above the license plate, but some did hang down below the plate.
Some of the newer “toppers” are fit right into the license plate space until a license plate was acquired or used in states that did not require a front and rear plate. Others were placed in the back window of the car as an alternative method. These types were mainly used for sports teams such as the UNR Wolf Pack or Oakland A’s and were made of aluminum metal.
The Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas and the Colorado Belle from Laughlin, NV used these types of toppers and were the size of a license plate with holes for attaching to the license plate or used inside the license plate holder which were easy to place inside the vehicles back window.
The original toppers were made of steel which caused them to rust. Some had celluloid covers like the World War II flags that showed the owner’s patriotism, but of course these were very fragile due to being exposed to the outdoor weather. During World War II all of the steel went towards the war efforts so the later toppers were made of aluminum. Yes some of the toppers are being reproduced today.
The old toppers were made of steel where as the new ones are made of aluminum such as the Harolds (no apostrophe the – Reno Club was named Harolds to catch peoples attention – old “carnie attention getter!”). Harrah’s Hotel in Reno, as well as the Pioneer Club in Las Vegas is a few of the Nevada toppers that have been reproduced. Also there are a few made of plastic which are not reproductions, but new toppers mainly advertising sporting teams.
Kitty Umbraco explaines in her own words why she collects Toppers!
Why do I collect Nevada Toppers? First I am a desert rat who loves the state of Nevada. When I was a child in the ‘good old days’, my parents had my brother and I see how many State License Plates that we would see on a trip around the state just to keep us busy (a pre electronic devise child). At this point I might add that my father was an auto garage owner & employee (one man shop) and a gold miner so we traveled a lot on many lonely Nevada highways, lots of dirt roads, plus at times faint trails to old mines. When Dad was looking for minerals, we wandered around looking at whatever was around which I always hoped wouldn’t be a snake!
My germaphobic school teacher mother wouldn’t let us touch anything, but my brother & I didn’t always do what we were told. Neither of us brought home any license plate toppers, but we did see a number of them. I like the license plate toppers, they tell an interesting part of Nevada’s real life history. Pappy Smith of Harolds Club in Reno with his carnival background, made Harolds Club the first gambling casino to rely on advertising in every sense of the word to promote Harolds Club with his billboards all over the world “Harolds Club or Bust” showing the pioneers in a covered wagon heading for Reno!; (notice they never promoted gambling, but fun). He gave everyone a license plate topper advertising Harolds Club like they give away matches today. By promoting Harolds Club, he was promoting Nevada.
When mining died down in Nevada, gambling and 6 week divorces as well as the building of Boulder (later called Hoover) Dam made Nevada. What do miners, those waiting for a divorce, as well as the builders of Boulder Dam do in their spare time? Why they gamble and have fun! Not to be out done next door at Harrah’s Club, they gave out Harrah’s license plate toppers to those in the annual special race to Virginia City to Lake Tahoe that way everyone knew who was in the special race. Harrah’s topper shows the back of an old car. Pioneer Club in Las Vegas shows Vegas Vic inviting people to Vegas. Then there is the 2 Stiff’s Service Station in Lovelock which today is a tiny little station. I remember when it was a huge (for the times) station busy servicing travelers. Back “in the good old days”, service stations were an important part of the community. Cars went from service station to service station as service stations in some areas were a hundred or so miles apart and the cars were lucky to get 14 to 16 miles per gallon! One of my coworkers in the 1980’s called my old navy 1964 Cadillac a BOAT because it was so large (and comfortable- 6 adults easily fit with extra room). The local pigeons called it a target! It had room on the license plate holder to put a license plate topper.
Would you believe with all of the old toppers around, I didn’t see any on any of the old cars at Hot August Nights this year! Have 37 different Nevada toppers and would love to add more toppers to our collection. If you have an extra Nevada topper that you are willing to part with, please let me know. This is the way to learn history; not who killed whom at what battle!
I have added links to give you a view of other toppers and ones that are for sale today.