Our Licenses Should Not Be Billboards
June 23, 2022 12:08 PM   Subscribe

The automobile driver's license plate began as a simple way to identify vehicles. However, in 1928, not long after they were developed, officials in one state had the bright idea to use them to promote their state's industry on vehicles roaming the US. The design sparked both controversy and a crime spree as tourists began stealing the unique number plates.

The official was Fred E. Lukens (R), the Secretary of State of Idaho. The license plates had the image of a potato, and the slogan Idaho Potatoes. There was an outcry, including the headline I used as the title of this post, as the theft spree caused the program to end after a year. The potato came back, though, in 1947 as World Famous Potatoes, ultimately becoming Famous Potatoes in 1957, a slogan which remains to this day.

Of course, not everybody wants their license plate to shill for potatoes, and historian Rick Just had a brief sideline in the '80s selling stickers allowing Idahoans to change their license plate to promote "Famous Potholes" instead.

The Idaho potato plate spawned a trend of slogans and images across the US and worldwide, and eventually led to the Supreme Court decision in Wooley v Maynard, where the Court determined that the state of New Hampshire could not prevent Jehovah's Witness George Maynard from taping over the license slate slogan that offended his beliefs - "Live Free or Die".

States now sell dozens of different specialty license plates funding special groups in addition to the standard ones; and because racists ruin everything, you can even get a white supremacist logo in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee.
posted by Superilla (11 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I started to read below the fold and LOLed. Thanks for the post.
posted by Wordshore at 12:24 PM on June 23 [5 favorites]

Illinois has probably 40 specialty license plates. I've taken to picking the one that best matches the color of the car it's being put on.

Plus it's fun to play with the themes, especially since the IL Secretary of State lets you check plate availability in real time. For the Rotary International service club plate, I wanted to get "WANKL" for my RX-8. For the Sheet Metalworker's Union plate (which appends the letters "SM" to every plate combo), I wanted to get "NTOBD".

But I still seethe that ILLINOIS offers plates commemorating both the STL Cardinals and Notre Dame.
posted by hwyengr at 12:27 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]

When I first visited Idaho I got a “Famous Potatoes” soft toy. Over a decade later I still use it when getting into playful arguements with my spouse - “Famous Potatoes thinks that’s a bad idea”

I really do like that you choose from three different plate designs in Utah - you get to choose one when issued at no additional cost. We went for different plates (Arches for one, skier for the other) on our two cars.

However the plate slogan “live elevated” is fast becoming “life evaporated” given the drought.
posted by inflatablekiwi at 12:50 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]

The fun part about all those custom plates is that every so often a naughty one slips through (full story).
posted by JoeZydeco at 12:54 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]

I'm feeling the potato equivalent of Rick-rolled
posted by elkevelvet at 12:55 PM on June 23 [7 favorites]

But I still seethe that ILLINOIS offers plates commemorating both the STL Cardinals and Notre Dame.

It's a cash grab! I'm pretty sure Jesse White would issue commemorative plates honoring the 175th anniversary* of Wisconsin statehood if they thought they'd get 1000-2000 more plates sold.

* it's next year folks, get planning!
posted by JoeZydeco at 12:58 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty sure Jesse White would issue commemorative plates honoring the 175th anniversary* of Wisconsin statehood…

I bet he’d throw in a performance from the Jesse White Tumblers at the statehouse on the celebratory day.

get planning!
Thank god I’ve already got a deep freeze full of kringles.
posted by hwyengr at 1:03 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]

It’s potatoes all the way down!
posted by obfuscation at 1:54 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]

One of the pleasures of owning a classic car in WA is that if it is over 25 years old you can run it on a period license plate from when the car was built, which generally are a lot more dignified than the screen-printed garbage cars wear nowadays. Give me back a plain colored rectangle with stamped numbers and, if you're lucky, incongruous state name abbreviations.

As a resident of an island full of people even older than me, my observation is that any vehicle sporting one of the "special edition" plates the state sells is a sure sign you'll be going 38 in a 55, with "creative" lane travel (and probable medical sedation, to boot).
posted by maxwelton at 3:15 PM on June 23

Them thar Confederbate license plates!
posted by Oyéah at 4:26 PM on June 23

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