Washington State driver’s licenses history

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Drivers licenses are not directly tied to license plates, but they offer an interesting look at the evolution of licensing practices and forms, and investigating the lives and homes of the names of each driver has become another hobby for me.

An informal history of licensing in Washington was recently found in the files of the Washington State Archives, which provided the following background on the issuance of drivers’ licenses:

In 1921 the Driver’s License Division was set up under the Director of Licenses.  The fee was $1.00 for two years.  To obtain a license, the driver was required to furnish the signatures of two persons who certified that the applicant was a competent driver and had no physical infirmities which would impair his ability to drive safely.  An impression of the state seal had to be placed on every license.  This was done by an electric driven sealing device.  The minimum age was continued at 15 years.  Drivers licensed in the first two year period number 301,110.

All licenses, regardless of issue date, expired on July 31 of odd-numbered years through the 1940s.  With 1921 as the first of issuance, the earliest dated licenses expired in 1923.  The history also states that for the first period of issue only, any drivers convicted of an offense would have their licenses exchanged for a blue one, and after a second offense, a yellow one was issued.  Such instances were fairly uncommon: a Bellingham Herald article from June 2, 1922 stated that in the first half of 1922, 168 blue cards were issued, and only four yellow.  This practice was discontinued after the first two-year cycle; apparently some officials were caught with violations and didn’t appreciate their licenses being marked.

All licenses through 1933 are duly approved by the Department of Efficiency.

By 1937, the Department of Efficiency apparently was no longer around, but somehow without it the state had found a more efficient delivery method for drivers licenses, essentially making them a postcard.

A new law was enacted in 1949 for staggered licensing, where licenses expired every two years on the driver’s birthday.



Issued to: Karl Gunther, 201 W 2nd St, Cle Elum



Issued to: L.A. Stewart, Lebam



Issued to: Oscar Magnuson, 2901 S 7th, Tacoma



Issued to: Ethel Lilquist, Rochester



Issued to: Helen D McAdam, 33rd & Vernon, Everett



Issued to: George W Feldman, 2477 Westmont Way, Seattle



Issued to: A M McCoubrey, 5526 16th Ave S, Seattle



Issued to: Mary West, Box 161, Ilwaco


The 1937 state legislature passed an updated vehicle code that resulted in two variations of the 1939-expiring licenses.  The new laws mandated that a licensee submit to a written and physical driver’s examination every four years, effective August 1, 1937.  Because all licenses in the state expired July 31, 1937, the massive demand for driver exams would far exceed the state’s capacity to administer them, so to reduce the burden, any renewal applications postmarked before August 1 could forgo a driver exam.  In exchange, these early issues received a red-colored license that was indicated on the back as non-renewable; these licenseholders were required to take an exam in order to obtain their 1941 licenses.

So many people procrastinated at renewing their licenses prior to August 1, 1937 that the state pushed back the deadline to August 10.  Any renewal application postmarked before then was exempt from a driver’s exam that year.  The state had to process a massive backlog of applications, as period estimates were 10,000 to 20,000 renewals were submitted on the last possible day.

Anyone who had completed the driver’s exam received a blue-colored license for the 1939 expiration, with a note on the back that the license could be renewed without an examination in 1941.

Driver License 1939 both

Type 1 (red) issued to: J L Hufeisen, 930 Broadway, Seattle

Type 2 (blue, trimmed to fit a wallet) issued to: Roger Fruci, 3923 E 5th Ave, Spokane


Driver License 1941

Issued to: Jacob Winterton, Blaine



Issued to: Marjorie C Prowse, Box 326 McCleary


Driver License 1945

Issued to: Jack Miller, Rt 1, Monroe



Issued to: Marie Alice Graves, 2203 W 27th, Vancouver (F.V. = Fruit Valley neighborhood?)



Issued to: Hazel P Kruse, R1 Box 18 B Power Line Road, Woodinville



Issued to: Eli Galarmeau, 1311 State St., Bellingham



Issued to: Ralph Newton Hamer, 4 MI S, Carlton, WA



Issued to: Elliott H. Porter, 13407 Greenwood Ave N, Seattle