Virginia, like all Southeastern states, is a very difficult state to obtain early license plates. Virginia started relatively early, issuing its first official plates in 1906. This first issue was a simple white on black porcelain license plate with "VA" at the right side of the plate and no date. These were used until 1909. The plate pictured is probably an early 1907 issue based on the number.
The 1910 through 1913 issues were made of porcelain coated steel. 1914 saw the introduction of embossed steel plates, a process that continued through 1972, with a few exceptions.
During the period 1914-1923, the length of the license plates was in proportion to the number of digits on the plate. The size of the plates ranged from 10.5 inches long for low-numbered 1917 plates to 18.5 inches long for 6-digit 1921 plates.
In 1924, Virginia plates were made in New Jersey - if you compare the two states' plates for this year, they are identical in design and font. Virginia's prison suffered a large fire, which required plate manufacture to be outsourced for 1924.
Virginia plates exhibit slight die variations in some years. For example, if you look very closely at the state name and date on the two 1925 plates, you may be able to see that #229-401 has thinner dies, while #102-139 has the thicker dies. There is no real explanation for this variation except that perhaps two slightly different molds were used this year. There does not seem to be a cut-off where the dies switched either, as I have seen plates with numbers both higher and lower than #229-401 with the thicker font.
Like many states, Virginia had certain "bad paint years" due to inferior paint quality or other factors. Most notable is 1916 - it is extremely hard to find 1916 plates with the original blue paint on the numbers. 1926 was a particularly poor year as the black background paint faded to dark blue in most cases. In fact, many color charts refer to the 1926's background color as dark blue because of this. The blue paint on many 1914 plates faded as well, although not to the extent as in 1916.
1932 started what was to become a long tradition of using black and white plates, with a few exceptions. The 1936 plate featured the blue and orange colors of the University of Virginia, while the 1944 was black on yellow, and the 47 and 49 were black on natural aluminum.
The metal shortage caused by World War 2 forced many states to use alternative materials - Virginia used an embossed soybean-based plate during 1944. They also manufactured a few plates during 1942 as well, but these are very rare. My 1942 #499-192 and the 1944, pictured below, are both made of this soybean-based material. 1942 plates were revalidated in 1943 with metal tabs, again to conserve metal. In 1947 and 1949, aluminum was used for all license plates in Virginia.
As during World War 2, the Korean War caused another metal conservation effort. This resulted in metal tabs being used to revalidate the 1951 plates for the following year. 1951 plates also saw the introduction of the "A" prefix - once plate numbers reached 999-999, they started over again at A1, the "A" signifying 1 million. This was to continue through 1971.
In 1956, the United States standardized the size of all passenger car license plates at 6 x 12 inches. Virginia had already adopted this new, standard size beginning in 1950, however.
In 1953, Virginia once again returned to the colors of the University of Virginia. Unfortunately, this was short-lived, and plates returned to the black and white colors again in 1954.
1973 saw the introduction of the semi-permanent plates, which were to be renewed with stickers. Most 1973 plates were actually undated, as seen below. However, plates expiring during October, November, and December had month and year stickers. It is quite difficult to find stickered 1973 issues as most were covered up with later year stickers.
In 1976, Virginia, like many states, issued special commemorative plates for the American Bicentennial. Upon payment of an extra fee, you could register these plates - I have included pictures of Bicentennial plates for several years below.
In 1980, Virginia changed their regular plates by removing the embossed state name in favor of a silk-screened variety. Furthermore, the background was changed to a reflectorized white to aid in visibility at night. The old, non-reflective plates were phased out over time.
As can be seen in the photos, Bicentennial plates continued to be renewed well after the Bicentennial. As time wore on, however, the plates started to look more and more ragged, as you can see from the 1986 plate.
Virginia plates in the 1990s continued the same style as those of the 80s. After exhausting all combinations of the AAA-000 series, Virginia started issuing the ZZZ-1234 series. They started the series at ZZZ and worked their way backwards. Somewhere in the ZXX series, the state name changed from the mixed-case style of the 1980s to the all-capitals style of today.
In preparation for the 400th Anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, Virginia issued it's first-ever standard issue plate with a slogan, nearly 100 years after it first started issuing plates. There was a design change in the "K" series. This commemorative issue was only made from the JAA-KN_ series.