Thursday, August 26, 2010

Do You Have a License for That?

This past weekend, an old friend gave me a wonderful “welcome home” present: a Colorado license plate from my birth year, 1976.

As anyone tuned into Colorado history will know, 1976 was a big anniversary for the Centennial State. While Denver and the mountainous regions had begun seeing significant settlement by white easterners with the influx of the gold rush in the 1850s, Colorado Territory did not officially become a state until August 1, 1876, 100 years and close to a month after the nation’s Declaration of Independence. So those of us lucky to have been born in Colorful Colorado in ’76 will always be exactly 200 years younger than the country, and 100 younger than our state.

Turning back to the license plates, for most of my lifetime the standard plate was green and white, with the iconic mountains as the backdrop to the license number. To my dismay, on a trip to Cheyenne I once discovered their pet name for slightly irritating tourists from the south (no, it’s not only Texans visiting Colorado who can be annoying; apparently Coloradoans in Wyoming are just as inconsiderate). As a result of the flood of green-and-white plates they see every summer, Wyomingites call us “Greenies,” with just a little bit of scorn in their tone.

In the last decade or so, Colorado has experimented with plate designs and colors, but I had never seen an older plate that was anything other than a Greenie until this Centennial plate, curiously colorful and with the silly 76 on it.

Being of a curious bent, I decided to visit the Western History and Genealogy Division at the Denver Public Library and see if they held any books on Colorado license plates. A quick catalog search and an elevator ride later, a kindly librarian told me that the book I was seeking is “an excellent one,” and guided me to its location.

Did you know that the creation of the license plate wasn’t immediately synonymous with the invention of the automobile? That makes sense when you think about it, but it had never occurred to this researcher that a unified licensing authority would be some time in coming. As a result, early plates were generally brass house numbers tacked onto the car itself, or perhaps onto a leather plaque on the back of the car.

The first license granted in Colorado was given by the Denver Fire and Police Squad in 1894; and the first official records of Denver licenses do not begin until 1906. At that time, drivers were issued a license number and were responsible for arranging about the sign themselves. That sure beats waiting in line at the DMV!

Also curiously, all cars, trucks and motorcycles owned by members of the same household were given the same license number.

As the popularity of the “horseless carriage” grew, so did the need for new license plates. In 1906, 375 numbers were granted, by 1909 the number of vehicles had reached 1,220, and the 5,000th license number was assigned the following year.

As the plate image below indicates, municipalities were generally responsible for granting their own numbers, which created a few problems. 

Pre-1913 municipal plate from Salida, one of the more prolific of license-granting cities
(B & W images of old plates thanks to Colorado License Plates: Facts, Figures and Folklore)

To begin, bigger cities like Colorado Springs would run out of numbers long before a smaller place like Canon City might, resulting in plates growing longer and longer along with their numbers.

There were also just too many styles of plates out on the roads for other drivers (and police!) to keep track.

And driving across a state with no standardized license system was a costly and irritating endeavor: beyond the difficulty of mountain driving before the great passes were blasted out, there was also the need to buy a visitor plate in each town or city where you happened to be driving.

To address these problems, in 1913 the state passed a bill ending municipal registration. There was now one state issuing agency and an official state plate, made of porcelain enamel (!), with the colors changing annually. Drivers were required to get a new plate (as opposed to just a new registration sticker) each year.

In 1917, the plates were black text on a pink background; in 1938, white on turquoise; and in 1949, yellow on black (buzz buzz). So much for green and white!

County codes and city of registration were included on each plate beginning in 1932, resulting in one amusing counterfeit 1934 plate that my reference source located: the county number on this 1934 plate was 66, which would be an impossibility, as Colorado only had 63 counties!

Whether it was a sample plate or for a movie set the book's author was uncertain, but I like to think it was a forgery created by a Prohibition bootlegger who was just a little bit late in getting the news.

Other license plate milestones were the following:

1958: First image, of a downhill skier

1962: White text, green mountains, aka "Greenies"

1963: Mountains on the bottom
In the 1960s, the mountains seem to have had a hard time staying put, as they alternated between the top and the bottom of the plate for a number of years.

1990-present: beginning of designer and special group plates:

To see more current CO plates, see here.

As we see above, in the 90’s the state broke away from only one or two official plates, and drivers out on our roads today see a rainbow of different colors and images. To add to the confusion, the influx of new residents from other parts of the country has meant an explosion of out-of-state plates. On my drive home from the library today, I saw BOTH Alaska and Hawaii, as well as Rhode Island and about 15 other state plates.

Like all historical movements tipping from chaos to control and back again, I sense a uniform plate lurking somewhere in our future!

To learn more about the history of license plates, and to see images of more old Colorado plates, see Colorado License Plates: Facts, Figures and Folklore.


  1. Interesting. Does Colorado issue special plates for those who have been charged with a DUI? Here is what Ohio does (last plate on page):

  2. I don't see any evidence of such plates in Colorado, but it's an interesting idea. Although if someone has been enough of a "repeat offender" on that front, wouldn't it be easier to just revoke their driver's license?

  3. I suppose. Depends on how many and even then you just get it suspended. Here are CO laws on license suspension regarding Drunk Driving:
    So you could be charged, wait through your suspension and continue driving afterwards.

  4. The special plates are for people who have work privileges only. That way, it's easy for a cop to spot them and see if they are misbehaving, i.e. doing ANYTHING besides driving to work or getting gas.

    The Colorado "greenies" are by far my favorites, though the '76 plate you got is pretty awesome, too. I wish we still were using the older plate styles. Really now, who has ever seen a green sky?

  5. Ah, Mr. Jeffrey, that makes sense.

    The other regular plate (last one above) is also pretty unrealistic. Those colors are pretty rare in the Colorado nature palette!

  6. And is this the wave of the future for license plates: