I’m going to open a can of worms here and declare something to be fake. You may not agree. Feel free to leave respectful comments.
In 1952, Ontario didn’t issue licence plates to cars and trucks. They simply reused their 1951 plates, and owners received a water-activated decal to place in the lower right corner of their windshield to show proof of validation. Basically, it was like a large postage stamp, with the gum applied to the front instead of the rear. It was very simple: Moisten the gum, and stick it on the inside of the windshield so that the yellow validation faced outward.
Licence plate collecting—as we know it today—didn’t exist back in 1952, so there was no one around to save these decals. ALPCA wouldn’t even be formed until 1954, and out of the few Canadian members that were issued charter membership numbers during its early years (#200 and lower), none were from Ontario. This may explain why there are very few surviving glass-mounted 1952 decals: Most of those vehicles would have met their end in a scrap heap by the early '60s, and no one was in the habit of visiting wrecking yards to carefully preserve windshield glass.
Over my decades as an Ontario plate collector, I have seen a full spectrum of “decals” from 1952, for which I've assigned different categories below. They include:
Colour photocopies that are blank on the rear side;
Colour photocopies or "decals" that have been pasted to old glass, with the rear side concealed by hardened caulk, paste, or other gunk;
Reproduction “decals” laminated in plastic, with instructions appearing on the rear;
Loose reproduction “decals” that aren’t laminated, with instructions appearing on the rear;
Real decals that have obviously been mounted to glass using water only, showing wear, tattered edges, and discolouration from sunlight, with no concealment of the rear side;
One-in-a-zillion, mint decals that are the real deal.
I am always wary when someone tells me that they have a “rare” 1952 decal to sell me, because 99% of the time, there’s something questionable that relegates them to one of the first four categories. I’ve purchased entire collections where the seller thought the crown jewel was a 1952 decal, and it wasn’t real. That’s not totally the seller’s fault. But there’s no real resource out there to tell what’s good from what’s not. I’m hoping to fill that void.
I’ll start with the Holy Grail, described in category 6. I’ll then work my way back to the fake-a-roos.
6. Our Holy Grail is a mint unused 1952 decal. I have one (marked with a green “sample” stamp, but it’s the Real McCoy). The moose and deer in the provincial coat-of-arms are printed in a very dark brown, as is the year “1952.” By a very dark brown, I mean like an Oreo cookie. As we'll see, there are fakes floating around that aren't as dark. Also, there should be a bit of a sheen on the front side of the decal. It’s a water-activated label, after all, with the sheen coming from the adhesive. That water-activated gum was uniformly and lightly applied on the front side. On the rear instructional side, there may be some light brown discolouration, mottled here and there. The sheen is difficult to see, even when viewed from an oblique angle, so I made a video to demonstrate. In the video, the real one (category 6) is on the right, and a probable fake (category 4) is on the left. As the camera moves toward the plane of the paper, you'll see the gummed surface of the real decal reflecting the ambient light.
5. Next come the real decals (bearing a serial number) that are correctly affixed to glass. These are not going to be in showroom condition. They were stuck to the glass on the inside of the vehicle, so there will be sun-fading or discolouration on the front. My glass-mounted example has darkened with time, but it still shows the coat-of-arms and year printed in a very dark brown. As for the back, you can expect substantial beige discolouration. You know when you find a super-old newspaper clipping in an antique book? The paper used to be white, but it’s beige, like whole-wheat bread. That’s what the back of one of these decals should look like. There should be no glue, tape, or anything else covering the back, because the adhesive was on the front, and there was more than enough to stick that decal in place forever. A real, glass-mounted decal should just show the bare paper (albeit browned) on the back side. If yours looks like this, then congrats! You have a keeper. The decals for cars read “PASSENGER” on the left box, and the right box contained a fancy all-numeric serial stamped in black. For trucks, the left box read “COMMERCIAL,” and the right box had a serial number starting with a letter (the plate used in 1951 had no bearing on the decal serials).
4. Now comes the iffy stuff. There are quite a few loose paper “decals” that look convincing in terms of their age and colour, but I long had my suspicions about them. I once heard that a car buff somehow scored a bunch of unissued leftovers, and gave them out as wedding favours. Later, I came across one of these “leftovers” for my collection that was mounted behind glass in a tiny wooden frame. On the back was a message of thanks from the bride and groom for attending their wedding back in November 1985. Colour photocopying wasn’t invented back then, so I suspect that these were made in the mid 1980s by a professional printer. These “decals” have no adhesive on the front side, so they have none of the adhesive sheen (as shown in the vid above). The size of the “decals” are slightly larger than the originals, due to the red border being extended further outward. Moreover, the brown colour of the coat-of-arms and year is clearly not as dark as it should be. Where a real example is Oreo brown, these “decals” are a lighter brown, like the milk chocolate in a Kit-Kat.
Continuing on with category 4: There’s one other telltale sign that these might be remade: The letter “T” in the word “STAMP” is incompletely printed on every single one of these that I have seen. I own two: A loose one, and one that is taped into the wedding frame. That same letter T appears fully on my authentic type 5 and 6 examples. Click the two images below for a closer look.
3. Be doubtful if you ever find one of these “decals” sealed or laminated in plastic for protection. They’re protected, all right… protected from a close examination of the front side to see if there’s any sheen from the adhesive. Can’t see that sheen? Then fake it must mean.
2. Similarly, you may come across a “decal” that has been affixed to glass. But maybe the rear side has been painted over, or brushed with sealant, or taped so heavily that you can’t inspect the instructional side to see how beige it is. No water-activated decal ever needed outside help to stick to glass. It’s a safe assumption that the “decal” has just been concealed to prevent you from confirming its authenticity. The fakes out there vastly outnumber the real deals.
1. Last and least, if you find a loose “decal” that has no instructions printed on the reverse side: It’s not an error committed by the printer in 1951. It’s an error committed by someone who can’t make double-sided fakes on a printer or colour copier. I've seen these many times at outdoor flea markets. Steer clear.