What do you know about license plates? You might think you know a lot because you have to pay for them every year. You might even go so far as to order personalized plates.
But, for example, do you know where the first license plate was issued? It was in Germany in 1896.
And do you know which state issued the first plate in the United States? It had to have been Michigan, because that’s where all of the automobiles are made, right? It wasn’t. It was Massachusetts in 1903, and the plate was made of leather, wood and porcelain.
Then again, it had to be the Unites States who issued the first reflective plate, right? No, it was Mexico in 1936, and they made the numbers glow by coating them with ink mixed with glass-like beads. So, when it comes to license plates, we Americans are apparently way behind the times.
In this country, license plates are manufactured by correctional facilities that are either directly or indirectly owned by the state — except in Alaska, Hawaii and Oregon, where they are made by privately owned companies like they are in most of the rest of the world. Still, the numbers are determined by the state, and more than 30 states don’t even require front plates.
License plates first became “artsy” when, in 1928, Idaho put a potato on theirs. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania was the first state to manufacture “personalized” plates, and now they are all the rage.
Some clever plates are PDL2MTL, IMBROKE, 3XTHFUN, SUPRBAD, 1INFDEL, ALWYZ L8, RG3NOUT, HOWIROL, TYRFRYR and a police car with a plate that said ICUFFEM.
You are probably wondering why they call them “plates.” After all, we don’t eat off of them. It does become a little clearer when you consult Mr. Dictionary, which says another definition for plate is to “cover or overlay with metal plates for protection.” After all, even license plates are coated. The old Latin definition for plate is “something broad and flat.”
Of course, every state has put a slogan on its license plate. For example, North Dakota used to be the “The Peace Garden State.” Now, it simply says “Legendary.”
Other states have offered various slogans over the years. For example, New York’s plate says “The Empire State,” Wisconsin almost said “Eat Cheese or Die,” North Carolina’s says “First in Freedom,” South Carolina’s used to say “Smiling Places. Beautiful Places,” Maine’s says “Vacationland,” and Pennsylvania’s says “You’ve Got a Friend In.”
Nowadays, every state seems to offer as many different license plates as Democrats offer up potential presidential candidates.
Decades ago, I borrowed my dad’s new pickup to haul my stuff back to college for my senior year. Once I got there, I pulled into the crowded parking lot behind my fraternity house and promptly put a dent in the rider’s door. As my dad reacted passionately, guilt has been my constant companion ever since.
That guilt was chased away ever so briefly a few years ago when I delivered a new pickup to my parents on one of their many anniversaries. I even went so far as to add a vanity plate, which said, ROADEO. I thought it was quite clever. But it never did chase away the feelings of guilt entirely.
Still, it’s stupid to carry that guilt around forever, isn’t it? And perhaps I could learn something from a license plate I recently saw that said: NVRLKBK.