License to Map

On May 13, 2012 · 10 Comments

I guess I didn’t know until this morning that license plates, those little identification signs we attach to our automobiles, are more generically known as vehicle registration plates. Right now I’m sure my North American audience is wondering why I even bothered to define "license plate" when the meaning is so intuitively obvious. That’s because the name varies between nations and 12MC has an international audience. In some places it might be called a tag, a number plate, or something entirely different. More to the point, "License to Map" refers to the very simple fact that maps are a common design element on license plates, or tags or number plates, or whatever one may decide to call them. However, I noticed this feature appeared in the wild within a fairly narrow geographic band.

License plates first appeared in Western Europe in the earliest days of the automobile at the tail-end of the Nineteenth Century, when they were more properly considered horseless carriages. This is also known as the Brass Era of automobiles due to an abundance of brass used both functionally and decoratively on the vehicles themselves. I’ve always loved the term "horseless carriage." One of my favorite Y2K stories (kids, go ask your grandpa if you’re unfamiliar with the term) involved the horseless carriage. I’ll quote from a period news article published in 1999: "PORTLAND, Maine –– State government got its first Y2K surprise months early when owners of 2000 model cars and trucks received titles identifying their new vehicles as ‘horseless carriages.‘" I still smile every time I hear that although I have an even better Y2K story. Fortunately that was about the worst of the Y2K damage, we all got on with our lives, and I’ve rambled along a serious tangent. Let’s see if I can pull this back to the predetermined topic.

View Larger Map

The first license plates in the United States were probably issued in Massachusetts in 1903:

At the time, no laws were governing the rules of the road which led to a great deal of confusion on the thoroughfares as well as a lack of public safety… The first plate, featuring the number “1” printed on it, was issued to Frederick Tudor in 1903 and is still held as an active registration by a member of his family… Although Massachusetts was not the first to register motor vehicles, we did lead the way in issuing registration plates. These plates were made of iron and covered by an enamel porcelain. They had a dark blue background with white numbers and “MASS. AUTOMOBILE REGISTER.” printed across the top. The plates were not uniform in size as the number of characters needed for a particular registration governed the length.

The seems typical. I flipped through uncountable license plate collector pages and sites. The early plates seemed to lack any kind of standardization. They were myriad sizes and were simply alpha-numeric characters stamped on a plain background. The earliest U.S. plate I could find that featured a map traced to Illinois in 1927. The design appeared rather crude compared to many modern plates.

1927 IL passenger plate

A quick note on license tag images. It was surprisingly hard to find any that I could lift with attribution, so you’ll get what you get instead of a lot of nice illustrations. I’ll feature a few that came with Creative Commons licensing options (hover over the image for the source citation) and I’ll provide additional links to places where you can see others.

I counted about a dozen U.S. states featuring maps on their current license plates. There are others that featured maps in the past that have not carried into current designs. Feel free to follow that link and count for yourself. I can’t guarantee that I found them all because I was beginning to get a little cross-eyed. They started blending into each other after awhile.

New Jersey 2008

Most of them, like the New Jersey example provided above, used a solid-fill state map outline as a separator between an initial set of alpha-numeric characters and the remainder. In addition to New Jersey, the states of Kentucky, Minnesota, New York, and Tennessee followed similar patterns. Texas employed a variation on the theme because Texas always needs to be a little different, and they filled their state outline with a stylized "Lone Star" flag design. Missouri had similar placement although their map was much larger. Florida used a very large teal map with oranges superimposed upon it.

New York plate 04-2010

Then there were the outliers. Ohio creatively placed its state outline beneath the initial O in the state name. Louisiana pushed their map to the left and superimposed a pelican atop it. Connecticut placed the state towards the upper-left. They get an honorable mention because it was sufficiently detailed to show the Southwick Jog (take back the notch!).

Montana is the winner. The outline map of Montana is the dominant feature of their plate.

I turned my attention to international locations. I couldn’t find any in Canada or Mexico. This surprised me. Both nations issued plates for their secondary units of government — provinces and states respectively — and both featured a wide variety of detailed graphics and artwork. Mexican plates in particular showed great creativity. Canadian plates were pretty interesting too, especially Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, but nary a map between them.

I began to think that maps on plates might be a uniquely U.S. design element and considered whether this represented some sort of broader cultural characteristic. Then I discovered instances on plates from Bermuda, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. The rest of the world seemed bereft of license plate maps, though. I’m not saying they don’t exist. I just could not find any as I began to lose interest after a couple of hours of searching.

Maps used as a design element on license plate appears to be primarily a North/Central American theme. Canada and Mexico need to catch-up with the rest of the continent and print some maps on their plates.

On May 13, 2012 · 10 Comments

10 Responses to “License to Map”

  1. Peter says:

    Mexico’s plates are much more colorful and creative than American ones. I also note that they have barcodes, something you don’t see in the United States.

  2. Christine says:

    Does Colorado get an honorable mention for having a nearly-Colorado-shaped square in the center of its plate? 🙂

    West Virgina doesn’t have their state on their plate, but it is on the registration sticker… so that’s cool too.

  3. Josh says:

    They are little and subtle, but it looks to me like Chihuahua has its map *twice*.

    • I think you’re right. Apparently I glazed over that after looking a several hundred plates. The placement of the little green splotch (one of the Chihuahua outlines) on the conquistador’s forehead serves to camouflage it as well. Good catch!

  4. David F-H says:

    What of Canada’s Northwest Territories? They have to get some honorable mention for a polar bear shaped place.
    Keep up the great work!

  5. Ken says:

    Both Colorado and Wyoming have their plates in the shape of their states.

  6. Karl Z says:

    Heck, Colorado and Wyoming plates are pretty much the shape of the state anyway (Kansas and both Dakotas, too, for that matter). Don’t they get credit for that?

    Oklahoma used to use the state outline as a separator, but it looked an awful lot like a plate defect from any distance at all…

    Many times, the plate has more information on it than it looks, if you know how to “read” it. Some of that information is useful for geography fans, and sometimes mappers. For example, the first number on Nebraska’s plate is a county number, which originally referred to the population rank of that county within the state (so, 1 = Douglas County (Omaha), 2 = Lancaster County (Lincoln), etc.) These rankings are from quite a few years ago, and may or may not correspond to the current county ranks. Butler County (#4) was passed up in population and had to fight to keep their number, which they used in promotional materials. As a second example, Oklahoma used to county-specific identification letters on their tags, but they discontinued that in 2010. Now, the county code is on the registration sticker. Other states have had similar histories with county identifiers. So…there’s more there than meets the eye sometimes…

  7. Jasper says:

    Guam has the shape of the island on the tag.

  8. Phil Sites says:

    Being a geo-nerd from Montana – I always thought we did license plates best. Since I moved to DC the only Montana plates I’ve seen out here are the new retro ones – which, yes, is just the outline of the state…

    I almost want them to do a Northwest Territories/Nunavut thing (plate is the cutout shape of a polar bear) and die-cut the license plate in the state’s shape. I wonder if that is within U.S. regulations…

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