History of Washington license plates

1905

The Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) was created by the Legislature and was put under the direction of the Secretary of State (SOS). The SOS personally signed all licenses.

Vehicles were assigned license numbers for a yearly flat fee of $2. In the first year, 763 license numbers were issued, resulted in revenue of $1,526.

Plates were not issued by the DMV, vehicle owners had to make their own. They could paint or fastened the numbers to wood, metal, or leather. If they didn’t want a plate, they could stencil the numbers on the front and rear of the vehicle.

The first vehicle licensed belonged to Mr. S.A. Perkins of Tacoma. On May 2, 1905, he licensed a 30 HP Pope-Toledo Touring car. He retained his license number, B-1, for many years.

1906

During this year, the total number of licenses increases to 1,253.

1910

The total number of licensed vehicles was 9,311.

1915

The legislature changed the license laws, requiring applications to be filed with a county auditor. A temporary license plate was furnished for use while waiting for plates to be mailed from Olympia.

From 1915 to 1916, Tacoma Rubber and Stamp Company made license plates from wood or leather.

The number of licenses increased to 46,000 vehicles.

1916

Plates from 1916 through 1920 were issued on a March-to-March basis. The year on the plate indicated the year it expired.

The DMV issued the first metal plates, with blue background and white letters. Passenger vehicles were designated by a small “X,” trucks by a “T,” and publicly-owned vehicles by a small “E.” License plates were issued to a person not a vehicle. The plate colors changed through the years, see Washington Passenger License Plate Colors.

1917

From 1917 to 1920, Tacoma Rubber and Stamp made porcelain license plates.

1921

By 1921, the number of registrations reached 137,000 vehicles, and made $2,841,000 in revenue.

The legislature changed the plate expiration date to December 31, making it necessary to order new license plates. Plates were stored in the basement of the Capitol Building. The weight of the plates was so great, the floor of the building began to sink. The license plates were transferred to another part of the building.

The legislature established the Administrative Code, creating the Department of Licenses headed by the Director of Licenses.

1923

The penitentiary at Walla Walla began manufacturing license plates, this was a considerable cost savings. The same colors were used for plates manufactured in 1923 – 1925. They also reduced costs by purchasing large quantities of enamel paint for the plates.

1926

A new license design was instituted. It was slightly larger and had the word “Washington” across the bottom of the plate. These changes were a result from Washington vehicle owners' letters:

  • A great many Washington automobiles travel into other states during the course of the year and if the name is brought to the attention of the people in those states, it will be a very suggestive form of advertising. It will also be a wonderful help in selling the state to our own people. Using the abbreviation is more or less like calling a man by a nickname and does not carry the dignity which the name of the state should have.
  • The tourist travel to the East is getting larger every year and a license bearing the name “WASHINGTON” would be much more effective from an advertising standpoint than the abbreviated form “WN”.

1934

Before 1934, all license plates were mailed from Olympia. In 1934, the system changed so plates were assigned to counties. A system of assigning county letters to the plate number was also adopted. This system discontinued in 1979, and the use of county temporary plates was abandoned.

Registrations increase to 460,000 vehicles.

1937

Legislation gives the Director of Licenses the authority to appoint subagents.

1939

A “Golden Jubilee” 50th anniversary license plate is issued.

1943

In 1943 – 1946, 1948, and 1952, windshield stickers were used instead of license plates because aluminum wasn’t available during the war years.

1949

Disabled American Veteran plates were implemented, exempting 1 vehicle from fees.

1953

Data processing converts to a punch card system, allowing for “prebills.”

1955

Horseless Carriage license plates were implemented.

1957

Amateur Radio Operator (HAM) license plates were implemented.

1958

License plates with a combination of 3 letters and 3 numbers are issued.

1963

Due to a misunderstanding in the specifications for the new 1963 license plates, there was no space on the plate for tabs. To make room, “WASHINGTON” was abbreviated to “WASH.” This caused a storm of protests from citizens and the legislature.

1965

The Department of Motor Vehicles is created.

The 1965 legislature passed a law prohibiting the use of the abbreviation “WASH” on vehicle license plates.

1968

A new law requires all plates to be manufactured with reflectorized material for easier identification in the dark.

1973

Personalized plates are voted in by referendum. The revenue would be used to support efforts to protect wildlife species (Wild Life Account).

1975

The Amateur Radio Operator (HAM) plate was implemented.

1975

Personalized plates, or vanity plates, are authorized by the legislature and made available to the public. These plates may contain 2–7 numbers or letters in any combination that doesn’t conflict with existing plates.

1977

The Department of Motor Vehicles is changed to the Department of Licensing.

1979

Disabled Persons Parking and Medal of Honor plates are implemented.

1980

The Disabled American Veteran plate was implemented, exempting 1 vehicle from fees.

1982

The Former Prisoner of War plate was implemented, exempting 1 vehicle from fees.

1983

The legislature passes a bill requiring license plates being replaced if they were 5 years or older, and plates issued on or before January 1, 1968.

1986

The legislature passed a bill requiring the Department of Licensing to design a new plate for the Washington State’s Centennial. Washington residents turned in 1,300 designs. A panel selected 12 finalists, and the final design was selected by the Governor and Department of Licensing’s Director. The design winner was Eric Booth, an 18-year-old high school student.

The legislature authorized the use of single letters or numbers on personalized license plates.

Plate replacement legislation was repealed due to public outcry.

1987

Pearl Harbor Survivor plates were implemented, and surviving spouses of POW’s were exempted from fees for 1 vehicle.

Centennial license plates were issued starting January 1, 1987. The plates had a blue rendition of Mount Rainier on a white background, with “Washington” and “Centennial Celebration” in red.

1988

Vanpool vehicles before 1988 are exempted from tabs. The legislature asks the Department of Licensing to conduct a study of specialty plate programs.

1990

The legislature passes a bill giving the Department of Licensing the “sole discretion” to determine whether or not to create, design, or issue a special plate.

“Centennial Celebration” is dropped from the license plate design; otherwise, plates remain the same.

Legislation allows veterans to display a U.S. flag and campaign ribbons on the bottom of the license plate.

1991

Purple Heart, Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS), Collector Vehicle, and Square Dancer plates are approved by the Department of Licensing.

1993

Firefighter plates are approved for issuance in early 1994, but never released.

1994

The legislature passes the Collegiate Plate Bill, which allowed the 6 major public universities to use license plates to raise funds for scholarships. All funds from plates under this program go directly to the universities. These plates were first issued in 1995:

  • Washington State University (WSU) – July 3, 1995.
  • University of Washington (UW) – July 3, 1995.
  • Western Washington University (WWU) – March 1, 1996.
  • Eastern Washington University (EWU) – March 1, 1996.
  • Central Washington University (CWU) – November 12, 1996.
  • The Evergreen State College (TESC) – July 1997.

1995

Stadium license plates were approved by the legislature, with additional revenue to pay for construction bonds for the Seattle baseball stadium. The plates were available July 1996.

1996

The LTC working group proposes legislation to remove the Department of Licensing’s authority to approve new special plates. The legislation passes in 1997.

1997

The legislature passes Substitute House Bill (SHB) 1008, Standardizing License Plates. This required plates to have a standard background, effective January 2001. The mountain background is kept as the standard design, and “Evergreen State” is added to the plate bottom. Horseless Carriage and Collector Vehicle license plates issued before January 1, 1981, Medal of Honor plates, and plates issued to commercial vehicles with a gross weight of more than 26,000 pounds are exempt from this requirement.

1998

As of January 1, 1998, new special plate fees were implemented. The fees were set at $40, with $12 for administrative costs.

1999

As of January 1, 1999, special plate renewals were set at $30, with $2 for Department of Licensing.

2001

All license plates were issued on a standard background, except Medal of Honor and Collector Vehicle plates issued before January 1, 1987.

2002

Department of Licensing conducts an internal study on implementing “flat plate” technology.

Cooper Jones Emblems are implemented September 3. Purchase of emblems is only available through Department of Printing’s store or website. The program is substantially funded through a donation from the Cooper Jones Foundation.

2003

Legislation creates the Special License Plate Review Board, with implementation July 1, 2003.

2004

The Special License Plate Review Board approves application packets for 3 special plates: Washington State Law Enforcement Memorial, Helping Kids Speak, and Professional Fire Fighters and Paramedics. All 3 plates were approved by the legislature. The Helping Kids Speak plate, approved for implementation on November 1, 2004, is the first new special plate created and issued since 1998.

Department of Licensing starts work on implementing a digital plate system, funded through the 2004 supplemental budget.

November 1, Disabled Parking license plate, with a disabled parking emblem was implemented.

2005

January 1, Washington State Law Enforcement Memorial and Professional Fire Fighters plates were released.

In February the Digital License Plate Printer begins production of specialty plates at Correctional Industries, Walla Walla.

These plates were released September: Lighthouse, Share the Road, Keep Kids Safe, We Love Our Pets, National Parks, Ski and Ride, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, National Guard, Endangered Wildlife (Orca), Eagle, Elk, Deer, Bear and Gonzaga University.

2006

In March, State Parks plate was released.

2009

The passenger plate series 123ABC is exhausted. Department starts using new format ABC1234.

2010

January 1, Gold Star plate was released.

2012

January 1, Volunteer Firefighter and Music Matters plates were released.

2013

January 1, State Flower and 4H plates were released.

2014

January 1, Seahawk and Sounder plates were released. June 1, WATV plates were released.

2015

January 1, Seattle University and the Breast Cancer Awareness plates were released.

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