County-issued temporary auto licenses are scarce today, but until the early 1930s were a common sight on Washington roads at the end of each licensing year. They are also well-represented in photos from this era, given the natural tendency for a proud new vehicle owner to take a sightseeing trip or pose next to their new machine. These licenses were displayed on vehicles pending the processing of license applications and issuance of metal plates from Olympia.
The motor law of 1915 stated that “the County Auditor shall, at the expense of the County issuing the same, furnish the applicant with a temporary number printed upon durable cardboard, which number shall be displayed always on the vehicle and shall entitle the licensee to operate the same for a period of thirty days from and after the date of such application, or until the permanent number shall have been received from the Secretary of State, at which time it must be replaced by the permanent number, and the temporary number card returned to the County Auditor.”
Registering a car each year was quite a bureaucratic endeavor: a motorist first had to submit an application to the county auditor, receive cardboard temporary plates, display the temporaries on the vehicle, wait for the metal plates to arrive from Olympia, remove the temporaries, install the metal plates, and, per the law, return the temporaries to the auditor’s office. Newspaper articles frequently reminded motorists that failure to return a temporary could result in a fine between $15 and $250.
With each county responsible for designing and sourcing its own temporary plates, there is a wide variety of formats between counties and years.
By the mid-1920s, cardboard temporaries had been phased out in many counties in favor of a paper “sticker” for the windshield. A 1921 Seattle Post-Intelligencer article credited this change to King County Auditor D.E. Ferguson, who claimed this resulted in substantial savings of about 60 percent of the cost of temporary licenses.
The widespread use of temporaries ended after 1931, when the annual renewal process was amended. Vehicle owners were expected to apply for the next licensing year earlier, in November and December, with the law dictating that the metal plates for the upcoming year be received and displayed by January 1, thus avoiding the need to extend the validity period of the previous year’s plates with temporaries. County temporary plates after this period would have been limited to new registrations throughout the year.