History of Washington license plates

1905

The Division of Motor Vehicles is created by the Legislature and placed under the direction of the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State signs all licenses personally.

Vehicles receive an assigned license number for a yearly flat fee of $2. During the first year, 763 license numbers are issued, resulting in revenue of $1,526.

No plates are issued by the Division of Motor Vehicles. Vehicle owners are responsible for making their own license plates, which can be made of wood, metal, or leather, with the numbering painted or fastened on. If owners don’t want a plate, they can stencil the license number on the front and rear of the vehicle itself.

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. Mr. Perkins 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 has risen to 9,311.

1915

The legislature changes the license laws completely, requiring an application filed with a county auditor. A temporary license plate is furnished for use while waiting for plates to be mailed from Olympia.

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

The number of licenses increases to 46,000 vehicles.

1916

Plates from 1916 through 1920 are issued on a March-to-March basis. The year on the plate indicates the year of expiration.

The Division of Motor Vehicles issues the first metal license plates, with a blue background and white letters. Passenger vehicles are designated by a small “X,” trucks by a “T,” and publicly-owned vehicles by a small “E.” License plates are issued to an individual and transferred from vehicle to vehicle. The colors of the plates changes through the years (see Washington Passenger License Plate Colors).

1917

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

1921

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

The legislature changes the plate expiration date to December 31, making it necessary to order new license plates. When these plates arrive, they’re stored with the other license plates in the basement of the Capitol Building. The weight of the plates is so great, the floor of the building begins to sink, and the license plates are transferred to another part of the building during a weekend.

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

1923

The penitentiary at Walla Walla begins manufacturing license plates, which results in considerable cost savings. The same colors are used for plates manufactured in 1923, 1924, and 1925. This also reduces costs by purchasing the enamel to paint the license plates in large quantities.

1926

A new license design is instituted. The design is slightly larger than previous license plates and has the word “Washington” stamped across the bottom of the plate. These changes result from letters like these from Washington vehicle owners:

  • 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 is changed so license plates are assigned to counties. A system of assigning county letters to the plate number is also adopted. This system is discontinued in 1979, and the use of county temporary license plates is 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 1943,1944, 1945, 1946, 1948, and 1952, windshield stickers are used instead of license plates because aluminum isn’t available during the war years.

1949

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

1953

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

1955

Horseless Carriage license plates are implemented.

1957

Amateur Radio Operator (HAM) license plates are 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’s no space on the plate for tabs. To make room, “WASHINGTON” is abbreviated to “WASH.” This causes a storm of protests from citizens and the legislature.

1965

The Department of Motor Vehicles is created.

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

1968

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

1973

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

1975

The Amateur Radio Operator (HAM) plate is 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 is implemented, exempting 1 vehicle from fees.

1982

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

1983

The legislature passes a bill requiring replacement of license plates 5 years or older, and plates issued on or before January 1, 1968.

1986

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

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

Plate replacement legislation is repealed due to public outcry.

1987

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

Centennial license plates are issued starting January 1, 1987. The plates have 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 are never released.

1994

The legislature passes the Collegiate Plate Bill, which allows 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 began to be issued in 1995:

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

1995

Stadium license plates are approved by the legislature, with additional revenue to pay for construction bonds for the Seattle baseball stadium. The plates become 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 bill requires license plates to have a standard background, starting with registrations due or becoming due January 2001. The mountain background is kept as the standard design, and the words “Evergreen State” are added to the bottom of the plate. 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

Starting January 1, 1998, new special license plate fees are implemented. The fees for special design plates are set at $40, with $12 earmarked for administrative costs.

1999

Effective January 1, 1999, special plate renewals are set at $30, with $2 earmarked for the Department of Licensing.

2001

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

2002

The 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 new special plates: Washington State Law Enforcement Memorial, Helping Kids Speak, and Professional Fire Fighters and Paramedics. All 3 plates are 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.

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

The Disabled Parking license plate, with a disabled parking emblem, is implemented effective November 1, 2004.

2005

Washington State Law Enforcement Memorial and Professional Fire Fighters plates are released effective January 1, 2005.

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