Artistic License

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
In 1928, a strange phenomenon was sweeping the state of Idaho, a vanishing act of sorts. A Boise resident would wake up on a typical Monday morning, drag themself out of bed, get dressed for the day, and they would hop in their car to drive to work — not noticing that something was missing. And suddenly, cops in the rearview.

Rick Just:
Then, the next thing that the driver of the car knew, they were getting picked up, because they weren’t displaying a license plate.

Roman Mars:
Idaho historian Rick Just says license plates… well, they were disappearing. The Secretary of State was fielding complaints about all the lost tags. And soon enough, the culprit became clear.

Rick Just:
Tourists would come to Idaho and steal the plates.

Roman Mars:
Idaho’s license plates were being snatched up like plush hotel bathrobes.

Rick Just:
Yeah. Yeah, people would come up, but they would pull up to either a tourist park or a motel or something, and they would spot those plates and think, you know, I’d like to have a souvenir. And so they would just take it off of the car, and take it home.

Daniel Ackerman:
And there was a reason why people couldn’t resist swiping Idaho plates, in particular. That year, the state had revolutionized license plate design.

Roman Mars:
That’s reporter Daniel Ackerman.

Daniel Ackerman:
Before this, plates were basic, with info like the state name and the registration numbers. All of this on a pretty simple, solid-colored background. But in 1928, the Secretary of State in Idaho had an epiphany.

Daniel Ackerman:
He was like, “We have this half square foot of open real estate, just rolling around on everyone’s cars. Let’s do something with it.”

Rick Just:
The 1928 plate is often said to be the very first advertising license plate in the country — their very first one that tried to advertise a product.

Daniel Ackerman:
And the product that Idaho chose will surprise absolutely no one.

Roman Mars:
The state’s 1928 license plates all featured a single giant potato.

Rick Just:
A big, kind of elongated, goofy-looking potato, but big. It was almost as big as the plate.

Daniel Ackerman:
The registration numbers were stamped in green lettering, right on top of this lumpy brown spud.

Daniel Ackerman:
“I would say it looks almost fecal in nature.”

Rick Just:
“It does. It really… the shape, particularly, yes. Yes.”

Roman Mars:
The execution wasn’t perfect, but it was innovative. Below the tremendous tater, there was even a modest, pragmatic slogan — “Idaho Potatoes”.

Daniel Ackerman:
Today, every state’s got a marketing slogan. Hawaii is the “Aloha State,” Missouri is the “Show Me State.” But Idaho was the first to put theirs on a license plate. They wanted to make sure that when people thought about Idaho, they thought potatoes.

Roman Mars:
And for better or worse, the association stuck.

Rick Just:
And now, it’s gotten to be such a thing. I mean, coming up here in a few days it’s New Year’s Eve, we drop a potato.

Daniel Ackerman:
What do you mean?

Rick Just:
Actually, well, you know how the Times Square ball comes floating down like that? Well, we have a big potato that comes floating down. They’ve been doing it about 10 years now.

Roman Mars:
The concept of slapping a tagline onto a license plate might not seem like a big deal, but it turns out this idea would end up having outsized consequences, and not just for Idaho.

Daniel Ackerman:
We’re talking legislative clashes, multiple Supreme Court cases, and even jail time.

Roman Mars:
Because what started in one state would soon spread. And when it did, the question of what should go on a license plate, and what shouldn’t, would prove surprisingly contentious.

Daniel Ackerman:
The first state-issued license plates appeared at the very beginning of the 20th century. And they served a mostly bureaucratic function.

Roman Mars:
More people were buying and crashing cars every year. So state governments originally mandated plates as a way to keep track of all the nuts behind the wheel. No one was interested in sloganeering.

Daniel Ackerman:
But then, Americans discovered the road trip.

ARCHIVAL TAPE (SONG):
SEE THE USA, IN YOUR CHEVROLET

Christine Byron:
Well, the big factor with increase in automobiles was that it allowed people freedom to roam. You could go wherever you wanted.

Daniel Ackerman:
Christine Byron is a former history librarian at the Grand Rapids Public Library. She focuses on the history of tourism, and she says that the rise of the road trip in the 1920s created this huge new tourist market. Drivers needed services, like gas stations and roadside motels, that hadn’t existed in the age of steam-powered travel.

ARCHIVAL TAPE (SONG):
TRAVELING EAST, TRAVELLING WEST

Christine Byron:
When you traveled by steamship or railroad, you pretty much brought what you needed with you. And your meals were served at a resort. But once the automobile came along, there was a lot more money that needed to be spent.

Daniel Ackerman:
From the state’s perspective, all those new tourist dollars were up for grabs.

Roman Mars:
So states started letting the world know what they had to offer. Arizona had the Grand Canyon. Minnesota, its lakes. New Mexico, its average 310 days of sunshine per year.

Daniel Ackerman:
And in this war for tourists, states promoted themselves anywhere they could.

Christine Byron:
National magazines, various automobile guides, the Blue Guide, the Green Book, and of course, tons and tons of promotional brochures.

Roman Mars:
But no one thought to advertise on a license plate until 1928, when Idahoans realized that their plates were too valuable to waste on just a registration number.

Daniel Ackerman:
And Rick Just says, once Idaho staked its starchy flag on the license plate, the rush was on.

Rick Just:
License plates became a different thing because of that potato.

Roman Mars:
States spent the middle of the century transforming their plates from austere government documents, into colorful boosters of tourism and industry.

Christine Byron:
You could even think of them as, you know, miniature little ads that are driving all over the state, and all over the country, hopefully.

Roman Mars:
In 1940, Arizona stamped “Grand Canyon State” on its plates, and never looked back. In 1950, Minnesota went with “Land of 10,000 Lakes.”

Daniel Ackerman:
Meanwhile, New Mexico actually put “Sunshine State” on its plates in 1932, before Florida muscled in on the slogan in 1949.

Roman Mars:
Florida, for the record, only has an average of 237 days of sunshine per year. But whatever.

Christine Byron:
Wisconsin was “America’s Dairyland,” Maine was “Vacationland.”

Daniel Ackerman:
Other states couldn’t make up their minds. Michigan’s plate, for example, initially sported the phrase “Water Wonderland” in 1954.

Christine Byron:
Which then evolved into “Winter Water Wonderland.”

Daniel Ackerman:
Followed by “Great Lake State,” “Great Lakes,” and “Great Lakes Splendor.”

Roman Mars:
In 1970, Michigan State Tourism Council actually adopted the slogan, “The Michigans – the Almost Islands of the Great Lakes.” But sadly, that plate never happened.

Daniel Ackerman:
Today, license plates like these are a national institution. And it’s fun in a kitschy Americana kind of way. Each state is earnestly trying to put its best foot forward. So what could possibly be wrong here? It turns out, quite a bit.

Roman Mars:
Because as fun as some of these plates might have been, at half a square foot, a license plate is a small canvas. And when you have to pick one symbol to represent an entire state, you are not going to please everyone.

Daniel Ackerman:
And this has caused trouble from the get-go. In 1928, when Idaho unleashed the potato plates, it didn’t go over all that well.

Rick Just:
People detested those license plates.

Roman Mars:
Lots of Idahoans, it turned out, resented being associated with the state’s cash crop.

Rick Just:
Particularly people from Northern Idaho, because they don’t grow potatoes up there. Really, it’s a kind of a Southeastern Idaho thing.

Daniel Ackerman:
Newspaper editorials called it an embarrassment. One headline actually read, “Why Bring That Up?”

Rick Just:
And probably, it’s a good thing that they just dropped the idea entirely, and went back to numbers in 1929.

Roman Mars:
No motto, no graphics, and certainly, no potatoes.

Daniel Ackerman:
And license plate quarrels weren’t unique to Idaho. Florida had to dump one of its plate designs after residents complained that the grapefruit with a stem attached looked more like a bomb. Massachusets, meanwhile, tried to put a codfish right next to its state’s name, only to be blamed by fishermen for a poor catch that year, because the fish on the plate was swimming away from the word Massachusetts.

Roman Mars:
These dust-ups over license plate design can seem like… well, small potatoes… but the fight over license plates was about to be taken to the next level, thanks to a politician named Meldrim Thomson.

MELDRIM THOMSON:
IN THIS CRITICAL BATTLE FOR THE SURVIVAL OF AMERICA, WE SHALL NOT TOLERATE A NO WIN SETTLEMENT.

Daniel Ackerman:
Thomson was a titan of New Hampshire politics in the 1970s. He served three terms as Governor, and he was a conservative firebrand who hated Democrats.

MELDRIM THOMSON:
WE MUST DRIVE FROM THE SEATS OF POWER IN THE WHITE HOUSE, CONGRESS AND THE STATE DEPARTMENT, ALL OF THE FOUL BROOD OF COMMIE-LOVERS.

Roman Mars:
Thomson had a lot of unorthodox ideas, including wanting to arm the New Hampshire National Guard with nuclear weapons.

Daniel Ackerman:
And he was obsessed with freedom. Here’s Thomson’s dorky campaign song.

MELDRIM THOMSON CAMPAIGN SONG:
LIVE FREE OR DIE, DON’T LET THE FREEDOM PASS YOU BY, STAND UP PROUD AND STRONG, AND LEAD THIS COUNTRY ON.

Daniel Ackerman:
“Live Free Or Die,” of course, is New Hampshire’s fiery state motto. It was coined by a Revolutionary War vet. And Thomson loved it so much, that before he became governor, he worked with allies in the state legislature to get it slapped on every car in the state.

Meldrim Thomson:
I don’t know of any more prominent place to carry a message than right on the license plate. That’s the best billboard of all.

Roman Mars:
In 1971, the slogan on the state’s license plate changed from “Scenic New Hampshire,” to “Live Free Or Die.”

MELDRIM THOMSON CAMPAIGN SONG:
LIVE FREE OR DIE, DON’T LET THE FREEDOM PASS YOU BY, STAND UP…

Daniel Ackerman:
But not everyone embraced the state’s message.

George Maynard:
That’s… I have to … It’s ridiculous.

Daniel Ackerman:
At 88 years old, George Maynard still gets heated about the New Hampshire license plate.

Roman Mars:
And for good reason, it changed the course of his life.

Daniel Ackerman:
George grew up in Rhode Island. He married a woman, Maxine, who he’d actually met in junior high. They settled into a pretty typical family life. They had kids, George got a job as a newspaper printer, and then something happened, like really abruptly.

George Maynard:
In 1956, four years after I got married, the Witnesses came to my house. They told me that God had a name, and his name was Jehovah.

Daniel Ackerman:
George and his family joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and by 1972, they had moved to Claremont, New Hampshire. That’s where the trouble started.

Roman Mars:
Every day, George would hop in his car and drive to work at the local printing press, with his New Hampshire license plates screaming in all caps, “LIVE FREE OR DIE.”

Daniel Ackerman:
This really grated on George, because he didn’t share Meldrim Thomson’s belief of freedom over everything. As a Jehovah’s Witness, George actually believed that God-given life was more important than freedom.

George Maynard:
Oh, that’s right. Definitely is. The real existence of life is very precious. Life is a gift, and we appreciate it very much.

Daniel Ackerman:
George didn’t want the government telling him what to die for.

George Maynard:
So then one day, I decided, I said, if it’s offensive, why should I be forced to support something that’s offensive? So I covered it up with red tape.

Roman Mars:
And when he erased the state motto, George marched to the front of the license plate wars.

Daniel Ackerman:
Covering up the slogan was a violation of state law. But a few weeks went by, and not much happened. Until one day, George and Maxine were shopping. They left the store, they got to their car in the parking lot, and they saw a police officer writing them a ticket. George told me he’d been expecting this for a while. He didn’t actually feel scared or surprised.

George Maynard:
“Well, I was happy.”

Daniel Ackerman:
“You were happy?”

George Maynard:
“Yeah, because I was expressing my belief, my rejection of something.”

Daniel Ackerman:
George refused to pay the $25 ticket, and of course…

George Maynard:
I kept the tape on, I did it again.

Daniel Ackerman:
The tickets piled up, until his consistent refusal to pay landed him in court, and the judge put him away for 15 days.

George Maynard:
So if you don’t want to live free or die, you go to jail in New Hampshire.

Daniel Ackerman:
Two weeks may not seem like hard time, but the sentence had a huge impact on George’s life. When he didn’t show up for work, he got fired. And he was embarrassed that his kids had to see him hauled away. Things were tough for the Maynards.

Roman Mars:
But George still wasn’t done fighting. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, he filed suit in New Hampshire, claiming the state’s law prohibiting the altering of license plates was unconstitutional.

Daniel Ackerman:
The state court agreed, but Meldrim “Live Free Or Die” Thomson had become governor by then. And Thomson was not inclined to extend George the freedom to cover up his beloved motto. So Thomson appealed the case.

ARCHIVAL TAPE (COURT PROCEEDINGS):
WE’LL HEAR ARGUMENTS NEXT IN …

Daniel Ackerman:
All the way to the US Supreme Court.

ARCHIVAL TAPE (COURT PROCEEDINGS):
751453, WOOLEY AGAINST MAYNARD.

Roman Mars:
The license plates collided with the First Amendment before the high court in November of 1976.

Daniel Ackerman:
During oral arguments, George Maynard’s lawyer claimed that in covering up “Live Free Or Die,” George was just exercising his freedom of expression. License plates are displayed on people’s private vehicles. He argued, the government can’t just hijack that space, and force people to express a certain viewpoint.

ARCHIVAL TAPE (MAYNARD’S LAWYER):
AND IT’S OUR POSITION THAT THE STATE LACKS THE POWER TO REQUIRE ITS CITIZENS TO BEAR THIS SORT OF MOTTO. I’D THINK THAT IF THE COURT WERE TO UPHOLD THIS SORT OF THING, THEN THE STATE COULD REQUIRE ALL CITIZENS TO WEAR A PIN OR AN ARMBAND, OR THEY COULD REQUIRE YOU TO HAVE A PLAQUE ON YOUR DOOR NEXT TO YOUR ADDRESS, SAYING “LIVE FREE OR DIE.”

Daniel Ackerman:
New Hampshire countered with: What’s the big deal? Just because it’s on the license plate. It doesn’t mean every driver believes in it. And sometimes, it seemed like the court was buying it, like Justice Thurgood Marshall.

JUSTICE THURGOOD MARSHALL:
THE FIRST TIME I NOTICED THE MOTTO WAS AFTER THIS CASE WAS FILED. I HAD NEVER PAID ANY ATTENTION TO IT.

SPEAKER (MALE):
WELL, I-

JUSTICE THURGOOD MARSHALL:
NEW HAMPSHIRE LICENSE? I SAID, OH, THAT’S SOMEBODY FROM NEW HAMPSHIRE, BUT I DIDN’T LIVE OR DIE ABOUT IT.

SPEAKER (MALE):
WELL, MOST PEOPLE IN NEW HAMPSHIRE DON’T, EITHER. THEY ACCEPT IT AS THE FACT THAT IT …

Roman Mars:
So what was it? Was a license plate a declaration of the state’s ideology, or just a thing that says nothing at all, since everybody had one?

Daniel Ackerman:
George couldn’t make it to DC for the ruling. He actually found out the same way as everyone else.

CBS NEWS ANNOUNCER:
FROM CBS NEWS HEADQUARTERS IN NEW YORK, THIS IS THE CBS EVENING NEWS WITH WALTER CRONKITE.

WALTER CRONKITE:
THE SUPREME COURT RULED TODAY THAT DRIVERS MAY NOT BE COMPELLED TO DISPLAY…

George Maynard:
Cronkite came on the news and says that the Supreme Court ruled in our favor that you can tape over their state mottoes, and so that was nice.

WALTER CRONKITE:
THE COURT, IN EFFECT, GAVE THEM PERMISSION TO TAPE OVER THE OFFENSIVE WORDS.

Caroline Mala Corbin:
I think the court got it right in the Maynard case.

Daniel Ackerman:
Caroline Mala Corbin is a First Amendment scholar at the University of Miami. She says the court’s 6-3 decision hinged on a concept called “compelled speech.”

Caroline Mala Corbin:
The First Amendment protects both your right to speak, so it protects you against government censorship, but the free speech clause also protects your right not to speak. So it protects you against the government forcing you to say an ideological message that you disagree with. And that was what the problem was here.

George Maynard:
They were trying to force you to say something that you don’t want to say, and you don’t want to live by.

Daniel Ackerman:
And George’s homemade solution – that strip of red tape – it actually held up under the weight of the First Amendment.

George Maynard:
And so, that’s my way of expressing my free speech.

Roman Mars:
At this point, it might seem like George Maynard’s case solved the license plate problem. Today, if you live in say, New Jersey, and object to the notion that you live in the Garden State, well, you can cover that sucker up. Your car is not a government billboard on wheels.

Daniel Ackerman:
But it turns out, the constitutional battle over license plates is not over, because after all that was settled, a new problem showed up. Specialty plates.

Roman Mars:
You’ve seen these. Unlike vanity plates, where drivers choose their own numbers and letters, specialty plates sport alternate designs with their own logos and slogans. They’re usually put out in collaboration with the government by a non-governmental organization.

Daniel Ackerman:
When drivers choose a specialty plate, they pay a little extra. And those proceeds get split between their chosen group and the State Department of Motor Vehicles.

Caroline Mala Corbin:
So, for example, in my family, we have a “Save the Manatees” license plate. That’s a specialty license plate that the state of Florida offers, that we paid extra money to purchase.

Daniel Ackerman:
“Why did you choose the vanity plate?”

Caroline Mala Corbin:
“What a ridiculous question. We want to save the manatee, naturally.”

Daniel Ackerman:
Specialty plates are easy money. A lot of states will issue one to almost any nonprofit, as long as enough people are interested.

Roman Mars:
But the problem with an open door policy is you might not like who comes inside. A decade ago, the state of Texas learned that the hard way.

ARCHIVAL TAPE (COURT PROCEEDINGS):
I’M NOW CALLING THE MEETING FOR NOVEMBER 10TH, 2011, OF THE BOARD OF THE TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF MOTOR VEHICLES TO ORDER.

Daniel Ackerman:
Usually, public hearings for the DMV are dull, bureaucratic affairs, poorly attended. But in 2011, the Board of the Texas DMV held a standing room-only hearing.

ARCHIVAL TAPE (COURT PROCEEDINGS):
SO WE’RE GOING TO MOVE TO AGENDA ITEM 5A, WHICH IS THE APPROVAL OF SPECIALTY LICENSE PLATE.

Daniel Ackerman:
The DMV Board votes on proposed designs for specialty plates. They generally approve the designs with very little fanfare or scrutiny, but this one was different.

Roman Mars:
The Sons of Confederate Veterans wanted Texas to issue a license plate featuring the Confederate battle flag, and a lot of people weren’t happy about it. Dozens of community leaders showed up to testify.

SENFRONIA THOMPSON:
GOOD MORNING. THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR LETTING ME COME.

Daniel Ackerman:
That voice you’re hearing is Senfronia Thompson. She’s a Texas State House Representative, and a black woman born in 1939.

SENFRONIA THOMPSON:
THERE WAS A TIME THAT I COULD NOT EVEN COME ON THE GROUNDS OF THE CAPITOL BECAUSE I WAS BLACK. AND IT’S VERY DIFFICULT TO BE ABLE TO SEE THESE SYMBOLS BECAUSE THEY BRING BACK MEMORIES. AND TO ME, IT’S LIKE STICKING POOP IN THE FACE OF BLACK PEOPLE EVERY DAY TO SEE THEM. THAT’S HOW REPULSIVE IT IS.

JERRY PATTERSON:
WE HAVE FOLKS WHO SAY, WELL, I’M OFFENDED BY THE SCV PLATE. AND MY RESPONSE IS, AND YOUR POINT?

Daniel Ackerman:
In favor of the Confederate flag plates was Jerry Patterson. He’s a commissioner of the Texas Land Office and a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

JERRY PATTERSON:
NO ONE HAS A RIGHT TO GO THROUGH LIFE TO BE UNOFFENDED.

Daniel Ackerman:
Patterson made a First Amendment argument. He thought that if enough people like him wanted a specialty plate related to Texas history, then the state shouldn’t be allowed to prevent him from having it.

JERRY PATTERSON:
THERE’S ALSO SOME FOLKS WHO’VE SUGGESTED, WELL, NOW, IF YOU WANT TO DO THAT, HOW ABOUT A MEXICAN FLAG PLATE? AND I SAY, BRING IT ON.

Daniel Ackerman:
And if that plate offended anyone?

JERRY PATTERSON:
MY RESPONSE TO THEM IS, WELL, GET A GRIP. IT’S GOING TO HAPPEN. AS IT SHOULD BE.

Daniel Ackerman:
After two hours of tense testimony, the board held its vote.

ARCHIVAL TAPE (COURT PROCEEDINGS):
ALL THOSE IN FAVOR OF DENYING THE PLATE, PLEASE RAISE YOUR RIGHT HAND. ALL THOSE OPPOSED? MOTION CARRIES UNANIMOUSLY, THE PLATE IS DENIED.

(APPLAUSE)

Roman Mars:
There would not be a Texas license plate featuring a Confederate flag.

Daniel Ackerman:
But then, the Sons of Confederate Veterans sued.

Caroline Mala Corbin:
Arguing that the state had violated their free speech rights, by targeting speech that they did not like.

Daniel Ackerman:
Remember, Texas had an open-door policy on specialty plates, which meant that they weren’t normally in the business of picking sides. So the state really was singling out the Sons of Confederate Veterans when it denied their plate.

Roman Mars:
And once again, there was a lot at stake here. George Maynard’s “Live Free Or Die” case had established that you could reject the state’s messaging if it didn’t suit you, but was it okay for the state to reject your message, on a state-issued license plate?

ARCHIVAL TAPE (COURT PROCEEDINGS):
WE’LL HEAR ARGUMENT FIRST THIS MORNING IN CASE 14144.

Daniel Ackerman:
So in 2015, license plates were back in the Supreme Court.

ARCHIVAL TAPE (COURT PROCEEDINGS):
JOHN WALKER VERSUS THE TEXAS DIVISION OF THE SONS OF CONFEDERATE VETERANS.

Roman Mars:
This was a really close decision, a 5-4 split, but the court’s majority sided with Texas. The state could deny the Confederate flag plates.

Daniel Ackerman:
The court acknowledged Jerry Patterson’s right to display symbols, even abhorrent ones, on say, a bumper sticker. But they said that right does not extend to license plates

Caroline Mala Corbin:
Because the Supreme Court held that specialty license plates were government speech.

Roman Mars:
And the government’s right to speak is also protected.

Daniel Ackerman:
Justice Stephen Breyer, in his opinion, actually pointed to a kind of legal symmetry with the “Live Free or Die” case. Just like a state can’t force an individual to display a message…

JUSTICE STEPHEN BREYER:
SO THE SONS OF CONFEDERATE VETERANS CANNOT FORCE TEXAS TO CONVEY, ON ITS LICENSE PLATES, A MESSAGE WITH WHICH THE STATE DOES NOT AGREE.

Roman Mars:
Ultimately, the Supreme Court’s decision in George Maynard’s case didn’t resolve all the issues around license plates, and neither will the Texas decision.

Daniel Ackerman:
Caroline Mala Corbin thinks license plates will always be a contested space, a government-issued document displayed on a private vehicle. It’s as if a license plate is a kind of bullhorn, only instead of taking turns speaking…

Caroline Mala Corbin:
You have both the government and private individuals shouting into the bullhorn. The problem is they’re both speaking.

Roman Mars:
And perhaps that’s why this little hunk of metal has so often become an ideological battleground, a place for governments and citizens to clash over the identity of an entire state, in its attempt to reduce it to a slogan and symbol speeding down the highway.

Daniel Ackerman:
And those debates are still playing out. The Supreme Court ruling empowered Texas to keep the Confederate flag off its license plates, but it also empowered states to make the opposite choice. And at least six have.

Roman Mars:
If you live in South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, or Tennessee, you can go to your local DMV today and register your car with a state-issued specialty plate, bearing a Confederate battle flag.

Daniel Ackerman:
In a couple of those states, Tennessee and South Carolina, lawmakers have actually introduced bills that would ban the flag from specialty plates. But so far, neither bill has gotten a vote.

Roman Mars:
And in Idaho, although it might not ever make it to the US Supreme Court, the state’s official license plate still raises eyebrows.

Rick Just:
And, you know, I wish we would change it.

Daniel Ackerman:
And some folks, like Rick Just, are still less than happy about it.

Rick Just:
I don’t think that anybody really thinks it’s a bad, evil thing or anything, but I’m just tired of it.

Roman Mars:
There is no longer a lumpy brown spot on the license plate. But the motto still reads, “Famous Potatoes.”

(MUSIC)

Roman Mars:
When we come back, reporter Daniel Ackerman takes us into the subculture of license plate collectors. You knew they existed, they do exist. But stay with us.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
I’m here with Daniel Ackerman. Hey, Dan.

Daniel Ackerman:
Hey, Roman.

Roman Mars:
I know you talked to some really passionate license plate collectors for this story that we ended up cutting out, but can you tell us more about them?

Daniel Ackerman:
Yeah. So amateur collectors are really the keepers of this history. There’s not like a Smithsonian Museum of the American license plate or anything like that.

Roman Mars:
Is it kind of, like, archived in the basements and attics around the country?

Daniel Ackerman:
Yeah, exactly. And one of those archivists is Stewart Berg. I recently visited Stewart here in Boston to check out his collection, because he’s been collecting since he was a kid in the ’70s. And he said he inherited his first plates from his grandfather.

Stewart Berg:
My grandfather had a lot of really cool old cars and there were 21 plates hanging in his garage. And at one point, I took them all down and I actually have every one of those plates except one today. And the one that I got rid of, I’m dying to get back.

Roman Mars:
So like every true collector, his collection is perpetually one item short.

Daniel Ackerman:
Yeah. Although he has certainly made up for that missing plate in terms of volume because at one point he told me his plate collection toped 100,000.

Roman Mars:
Whoa! How do you even accumulate that many plates?

Daniel Ackerman:
Roman, I wanted to know that too but Stewart was pretty reluctant to give up his sources.

Roman Mars:
Oh, I see.

Daniel Ackerman:
But when it was at its height, his plate collection, it was so thorough that in the classic car world, someone who wanted an accurate vintage plate to go with their vintage car, they would just call up Stewart.

Stewart Berg:
And I wanted every year that if somebody said, “Hey, I need a three-digit plate for my Buick from 1931, can you get me one?” and I’d have it.

Daniel Ackerman:
When I went to visit Stewart, we sat out on the pool deck near his condo because of COVID. And he rolled out this wagon with two huge plastic tubs, completely packed with plates. Each one was in its own little protective sleeve. And he just started pulling out and showing me some of his favorites. Starting with some of the earliest state-issued license plates, which were from the first decade of the 1900s.

Roman Mars:
And so what were those like?

Daniel Ackerman:
They were really fancy. To me, they actually looked more like fine China than vehicle tags. That’s because they were literally made of porcelain.

Roman Mars:
Well, that seems a little too fragile to go on a car. How does that work?

Daniel Ackerman:
Yeah, well he was actually pretty proud that he had some without any chips or dings in them. But keep in mind at that time, only really rich people owned cars. They weren’t even that reliable as a mode of transport, but they were definitely a status symbol. And the license plates played along. There were this smooth cobalt blue with bold white numbering.

Stewart Berg:
“And I can actually show you one if you’d like to see it.”

Daniel Ackerman:
“Yes.”

(sound of plastic tub being opened)

Stewart Berg:
“This is a 1909 number five. Feel how heavy that is.”

Daniel Ackerman:
“Oh, yeah.”

Stewart Berg:
“It was registered to a James P. Stearns, 31 Pleasant Street in Brookline Mass for a three horsepower Pope electric.”

Roman Mars:
A Pope electric. What’s a Pope electric?

Daniel Ackerman:
It’s an electric car.

Roman Mars:
Okay. There you go.

Daniel Ackerman:
This is before combustion took over. They were still experimenting with all these different types of engines. That’s how new the automobile was at the time.

Roman Mars:
Oh, yeah.

Daniel Ackerman:
So, I don’t know if you caught that but the license plate number was just five, as in, it was Massachusetts fifth state license plate.

Roman Mars:
That is remarkable. Having license plate number five has got to confer some bragging rights in the license plate collection community.

Daniel Ackerman:
Right. It absolutely does. And at the time it also conferred bragging rights to the owner, like James P. Stearns. He was a bank president. So he was, you know, kinda highest society at the time. And Stewart also had first lady Francis Cleveland’s license plate, married to President Grover Cleveland, and she was Number 44.

Roman Mars:
44 is pretty good. But I did get that the era of fancy porcelain plates with low numbers didn’t last all that long.

Daniel Ackerman:
No. And that’s thanks mainly to Henry Ford and his Model T. Cars got way more affordable in the 19-teens. And in the first quarter of the century, the number of registered cars in the US jumped from 8,000 to more than 18 million. So as early as 1916, Massachusetts was stamping their plates out of 10, which was way cheaper.

Roman Mars:
So these mass-produced metal plates, they hit the scene and that’s when license plates, as we talked about in the story, basically become billboards.

Daniel Ackerman:
Right. They become this space where States can play around with graphics and slogans. And Stewart has 1000s of examples. So, during our interview, he was pulling out plate after plate. I would try to ask him a question and he would throw off a one-word answer, but already be pulling out the next graphic plate to show me.

Stewart Berg:
“This is a Golden Jubilee from the state of Washington from 1939. The 36 Wyoming was the first year of the bucking Bronco. Mount Rushmore in 1952 was on the plates. This is first year of the state-shaped plate in Tennessee. South Carolina in 1930, they’re the iodine state.”

Daniel Ackerman:
“Did they produce iodine?”

Stewart Berg:
“Yeah. Here’s the New York world’s fair. No real graphics, but it does have a lot of words on it.”

Roman Mars:
Wow! It’s kind of fun to hear all the experimentation that was going on. Like the Tennessee plate was shaped like Tennessee, that’s pretty cool.

Daniel Ackerman:
Yeah. He said that one was actually pretty tough to Mount on people’s cars.

Roman Mars:
I bet!

Daniel Ackerman:
Yeah. But you know, that experimentation really exploded in the 1970s when States started putting a reflective coating on the license plates. And that basically let them print really detailed graphics rather than having to, like, emboss the shapes into the metal. So designs got really busy, and I think that is perhaps best exemplified by the plates that Illinois recently introduced just back in 2017.

Roman Mars:
So, let’s pull that one up. Oh, yeah. Okay. So there’s a lot going on here. It has the light blue and red of the Chicago flag which I like. That looks like the top of the statehouse I’m assuming, and then a windmill.

Daniel Ackerman:
Yeah, set out to rural Illinois.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, because right next to that is the Chicago skyline. And then of course, at the very far left edge is a half a face of Abraham Lincoln.

Daniel Ackerman:
Right. So there’s not even enough room for him. He’s like split right down the nose.

Roman Mars:
And it has “Land of Lincoln,” of course, which is their motto. What’s kind of interesting about this is, like, this is kind of the opposite of the Idaho potato problem that we talked about in the piece. This is not the whole state boil down into one thing, this is the whole state boil down into way too many things to put on a license plate.

Daniel Ackerman:
Right. And it’s not pretty because it’s not like the canvas gets any bigger. It’s still just this half a square foot and you’re cramming ever more onto it.

Roman Mars:
And so what do people like Stewart, license plate collectors, make of this kind of graphical onslaught? What do they think of this as compared to the old plates?

Daniel Ackerman:
Yeah. Most collectors I talked to expressed a preference for those older plates with the simple sleek design. But a lot of them also just take the whole thing in stride because to guys like Stewart, the more the merrier, right?

Daniel Ackerman:
“Do you think license plate design has gotten too busy and complicated?”

Stewart Berg:
“No, I don’t. Here’s the neat plate. This is one of my favorites. This is the Georgia Peach. What else do I have that I can show you?”

Roman Mars:
More graphics just means more plates. It means more joy for Stewart.

Daniel Ackerman:
Absolutely, yes. Just more grist for the collectors’ meal.

Stewart Berg:
Here’s a Texas Centennial plate from 1936. Here’s New Mexico, 1940. Great graphics on these. Utah, Center Scenic America in 1942. Ohio in 1938. Here’s an early graphic plate from Rhode Island. Here’s a 41 Hawaii. Here’s is an Oklahoma plate with an F in the middle. This is a first graphic plate…. (fades)

———

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Daniel Ackerman. Edited by Joe Rosenberg. Mixed by Bryson Barnes. Music by our director of sound, Sean Real. Delaney Hall is the senior producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team is Emmett FitzGerald, Katie Mingle, Christopher Johnson, Abby Madan, Chris Berube, Vivian Le, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars.

Special thanks this week to a whole bunch of additional people we interviewed for this story, including Virginia Scharff, Eugene Volokh, Peter Blodgett, Dan Smith, Thomas Wilson, and especially Tennessee state representative, G.A. Hardaway, who is fighting to get the Confederate battle flag off the state’s specialty plates. If you want to learn more about all of this, we’ll have links and media on our website, 99pi.org.

We are a project of 91.7 KALW in San Francisco and produced on Radio Row, which is spread across all of North America right now, but is centered in beautiful downtown Oakland, California. We are a part of Radiotopia from PRX. A collective of the best, most innovative shows in all of podcasting. Discover, listen, and support them all at radiotopia.fm. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet at me @Roman Mars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. If you want to chime in on which state has the best license plate, well, I encourage you to speak your peace at 99pi.org.

 

Credits

Production

Reporter Daniel Ackerman spoke with Rick Just, Historian and author of “Speaking of Idaho” blog; Virginia Scharff, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of New Mexico, author of Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age; Christine Byron, Former local history librarian at the Grand Rapids Public Library and author of Vintage Views along the West Michigan Pike; Stewart Berg, License plate collector; Peter Blodgett, Historian of tourism in the American West at The Huntington Library, editor of Motoring West Volume I: Automobile Pioneers, 1900 – 1909; George Maynard, Connecticut resident; Caroline Mala Corbin, Professor of Law at the University of Miami and author of Mixed Speech: When speech is both private and governmental; G.A. Hardaway – Tennessee State House Representative

Special thanks to Gerry Griffin, Dan Smith, Lauren Chooljian, Eugene Volokh, Todd Melby, Sam Stockard, and Thomas Wilson.

This episode was edited by Joe Rosenberg.

    1. Sandeep

      I immediately thought about the Northwest Territories when listening to this episode.

  1. Rob

    Any thoughts on the safety implications of these different designs? Some of them (such as the California state parks one) don’t look as though they’d be very clear and legible from a distance.

  2. Sean Redmond

    Personally, my favourite registration plates are the ones from Switzerland. They have the Swiss flag in the form of a shield on one side, the 2 letter cantonal code followed by the reg. number lastly flanked by the cantonal flag in shield form.
    They aren’t too busy, are easy to read and pleasing to the eye.

    1. Rhubarbjin

      Absolutely! When I visited Switzerland, I couldn’t stop staring at those plates. They’re such a delightful design.

  3. Sandeep

    Canada’s Arctic has the best plates. Northwest Territories has is polar bear plates, Yukon Territory has a prospect panhandling, and Nunavut has the territory’s name in both English and Inuktitut. Nunavut also had a polar bear shaped plate as well.

  4. Lee Bannon

    How could you not discuss Delaware plates and why they are so generic? There’s a reason they aren’t like the other states’.

    1. Martha W

      And that there is a “market” for low digit plates. After the license digit 3 – they can be had via tag switching. Often down a family tree – my father won his in a poker game from his brother after my grandfather passed away and before the plates had “value”. Single digit plates can be quite valuable and also can be considered part of an estate and be valued and taxed!

  5. AtomX

    The NWT plates are nice, but the new Nunavut plates are disappointing. The Yukon plate is distinctive, but a bit kitsch. Nunavut has one of the BEST designed flags in all of North America, and a perfect candidate for a license plate, so it’s sad that they didn’t use it.

    BC’s plate is simple, but the serif font is grating. The personalized plates in BC are nice, the BC parks plates are horrid. The Vancouver 2010 Olympic plate was horrible but not as vomit-worty as the BC Parks plates.

    Alberta’s plate really has an understated beauty and fascinating typeface, and shout outs to Quebec as well.

  6. Tate

    I wish the D.C. plate and it’s complaint in resistance against the federal government, “Taxation Without Representation” was mentioned. It’s definitely the most clever use of a license plate that I’ve ever seen.

  7. Aaron

    This episode reminded me of all the controversy around the new Ontario license plate. There was controversy around them every step of the design process…

    Before the design even came out, there was criticism over the proposed slogan change. The premier (head of the province) wanted to change it to one of his political slogans, “Open For Business.” People thought it was tacky, and the premier settled on using it for commercial plates only.

    Then when the design was revealed, the blue text on white of the previous design was replaced with a blue on blue design. People called it a political move, since it doubled down on the premiers political party colour (blue). This didn’t pair well with the redesign being seen as a political move in the first place.

    However, that issue didn’t matter in the end, because when the plates were rolled out anyways, they had a bigger problem: the numbers become invisible at night. An office duty police officer posted a photo of the plates at nights, most people couldn’t read the numbers on them, and the topic went viral through the province. There is now a recall and a redesign going on, but when this issue was sidelined a month later by the pandemic, the process slowed down.

  8. Elizabeth

    I too would have loved to hear a coda on the Delaware aftermarket for low digit plates. It was an interesting discussion in the family after my grandmother passed and the different dollar values for her cherished tags. I say cherished, because that was a bragging point for her for years.

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