Below is an overview of Washington’s license plate history that I’ve compiled and illustrated with examples from my collection. Please do not reproduce without permission. I’d love hear from anyone who may have questions, comments, needs more information, or has some old plates that need a new home (please see my Items wanted).
Prestate era: 1905 to 1915
Things were primitive at the start. Washington’s first laws regulating automobiles were effective June 7, 1905, and required that all motor vehicles be registered with the Secretary of State’s office, at which time the motorist would be assigned a registration number to be displayed on the rear of the vehicle, preceded by the abbreviation “WN.”
Only the number was furnished; the owner was responsible for displaying it. Common methods used metal house numbers mounted to leather or cardboard, but some licenses were custom-made out of metal, or sometimes merely painted directly on the vehicle. License plates from this era, before state-issued plates, are known as prestates.
For ten years, this was the extent of vehicle licensing in the state of Washington. All types of vehicles, regardless of class (car, motorcycle, truck, government-owned, for hire, etc.) received a simple number. As registrations lapsed over time, older dead numbers were recycled by the state. By the time this system ended in mid 1915, numbers were being assigned in the low 40000s.
First year of issue
The state of Washington officially got into the business of issuing license plates when a new comprehensive motor vehicle law was passed in March 1915, effective June 10. Chapter 142 of the 1915 session laws outlined the processes for vehicle licensing, setting fees based on vehicle classes and assigning the secretary of state the duty to “furnish to each licensee of a motor vehicle two number plates containing the number to be displayed on such vehicle.” On April 10, Charles E. Post & Company of Los Angeles beat out four other bidders and was awarded the contract to manufacture the 1916 license plates for a sum of $11,802. When the new law went into effect June 10, 1915, the handmade license plates on all vehicles in the state expired. Vehicle owners submitted licensing applications to their county auditor and received county-issued paper or cardboard temporary licenses pending their plates’ arrival from Olympia. Plates were slow to arrive from the factory: only the first 400 licenses had been issued by June 15, and by July 15, only a total of 15,753 had been issued, with an estimated 20-25,000 still pending.
The 1916 issue was quite large (6 1/4″ tall and 16 1/2″ wide), and non-passenger types such as trucks or for hire vehicles had an additional 1 ¼” of height added, as the vehicle class was spelled out in large letters at the top. Under the terms of the auto law, the licensing period aligned to the state’s fiscal year (beginning of March to the end of February). The date displayed on the license plate indicated the expiration year (so the 1916 license plates expired February 29, 1916, and the 1917 issue was valid from March 1, 1916 to February 28, 1917). This system would continue until 1921.
“X” marks the plate: introduction of vehicle class codes
Many changes were implemented in the state’s second year of issuing plates. After underbidding the Charles E Post company by a mere $19.75 (on a total bid of $9,352), the Seattle-based Pacific Coast Stamp Works was awarded the contract to produce the 1917 licenses, and would retain the state’s business for three years. The plate size was reduced and a letter code was introduced to designate the vehicle class, with “X” being issued to private passenger vehicles, “T” denoting trucks, etc. This system would remain in use through 1935.
The 1917 color scheme was an unusual choice for license plates. “Some nice old lady holding a state office has picked lavender,” was a snarky comment in the Lynden Tribune. Legibility was not a strong suit for white numbers on a lavender background. Paint quality was also a struggle for the Pacific Coast Stamp Works during its multi-year run as license plate supplier, with 1917 being the low point.
The format was largely unchanged for 1918, although a more legible white on black color scheme was used.
First attempts at renewal tabs
For 1919, the state began an experiment with multi-year plates, modeled after the practice used by California. The 1919 plates were manufactured with six slots surrounding the state name, date, and vehicle class, with the intention of using a tab to renew the plates in future years. This cost-savings effort was doomed to failure from the start, and the plates had already proved unpopular before the end of the 1919 licensing year, with a Seattle Times editorial deriding the 1919 plates as a “cheap yellow form of construction that has aroused the resentment of every automobile owner who displays it.”
The legislature passed a new auto license law with an updated fee structure on March 1, 1919. 1919 licenses had expired the day before, on February 28, so with the late change in the law, a one-month grace period was granted for 1919 licenses, making them valid through March 31 without a 1920 renewal. Three varieties of license plates were used for the 1920 licensing year.
The first and most common was 1919 plates renewed with a white porcelain validation tab, made by the California Metals and Enamel Company. The tabs were issued with the vehicle class code and serial numbers matching the base plate.
New registrants, who didn’t have 1919 plates to renew, received full porcelain plates, with a tri-color format to match the look of a yellow plate with a white renewal tab. Toward the end of the licensing year, as stock of the porcelain plates ran out, full metal plates were produced, again with matching color formats.
The tab system died after only one year in use. Cost savings were minimal, and offset by production waste and administrative burdens. All of the renewal tabs had to be made prior to the start of the licensing year, which meant producing matching sets of tabs for every single number issued in 1919, since there was no way to identify which licenses wouldn’t be renewed due to sale of the vehicle, moving out of state, etc. As explained in the Seattle Times, “In the working out of the law, it was reported to the appropriations committee, the state is losing about $25,000 during a biennial period. Many cars are resold, change ownership, taken out of the state or are traded in. To guard against the demand for old numbers, license plates must be provided for which there is no call. It was pointed out that the old plan of issuing number plates whenever a license application was made did not require purchasing more plates than could actually be sold.”
Adding insult to injury, 12,000 of the tabs were lost when the ship Amazon capsized off Dash Point.
1921: the year with two plates
With the idea of multi-year plates abandoned, 1921 saw a new design that was smaller than previous years. Manufacturing was awarded to the Western Display Company of Minneapolis.
1921 finally saw the end of the state’s odd validity period. House Bill 70 passed on January 27, 1921, and, as summarized in the Tacoma Daily Ledger, provided “that auto license numbers issued in December shall be good for the following year. Representative Hubbell explained that this is one of several bills to make auto laws confirm with laws of adjacent states.”
With the law implementing a more commonsense calendar year period of validity, a second plate was needed for the last ten months of 1921, as the original green plates had expired on February 28, 1921. A second 1921-dated plate was issued for the remainder of the year, expiring December 31, 1921. These were sourced from the Irwin Hodson company of Portland, OR, and had small design variances that prevented owners from painting over their first 1921 plates: the second type used a colon instead of a dash between the vehicle class letter and the year (X:21 vs X-21), and used more angular number dies.
1922: first full calendar year
The first full calendar year licenses were white on brown, and once again made by the Irwin Hodson company in the same format as the gray 1921s.
1923: prison production begins
Proposals to use the state prison system to manufacture license plates, a practice used in many other states, had been floated at various times since the license law was passed in 1915. In March 1922, the license plate shop was established at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. The 1923 plates were the first to be produced at the prison, which continues to make Washington’s license plates today.
The design changed very little over the next two years. The color scheme from 1923 was inverted in 1924, with white numbers on a dark blue background. With age, the blue paint tends to fade to black.
In 1925, the colors reverted back to the 1923 format.
1926: State pride wins out
The simple “WN” designation had been unpopular for a long time.
Back in 1922, a Mrs. W.B. wrote to the Seattle Times: “I am good and peeved because on a trip taken by my husband and me this last summer, back through the South to Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan and back—I am peeved because no one the other side of the Idaho line knew what ‘Wn.” stood for on our car license plate. People even made wagers in Thermopolis, Wyoming, as to whether we were from Canada or Wisconsin. I wanted people to know our state, and I do not remember in the East of any one knowing what “Wn.” stood for. At the very least, 500 people inquired as to where “Wn.” was located. That’s not very good advertising, as everyone writing to this state abbreviates the state as “Wash.” Why two abbreviations?”
Wisconsin (which used the even more austere abbreviation of “W”) was a common misinterpretation of Washington’s “WN,” so in the interest of promoting the state, in 1926 “Washington” was spelled out in full, and nobody was “good and peeved” until almost 40 years later, when the 1963 design would generate even more controversy. With the addition of the full state name, plates became larger, while still maintaining the letter-coding system to denote vehicle class, and a hyphen was added to registration numbers to enhance legibility.
1927 to 1934: quiet years
Few changes in design or processes occurred for the next several years. Aside from 1928, which had one of the boldest color years, colors alternated between green and white. 1928 also saw the date and vehicle class designator moved to the same line as the state name.
1935: County Coding begins
As registration volumes continued to increase, the process of issuing plates centrally from Olympia became too costly and inefficient, and in 1935 Washington adopted the practice used in many other states and implemented a county code system. Plates would be shipped to each county auditor for issuance. Codes were assigned by population, in descending order. The Big Three counties (King, Pierce, Spokane) received letters A, B, and C, respectively, with the alphabet progressing through the remaining counties. Washington has 39 counties, so after Z was assigned to the 26th smallest county (Klickitat), the remaining 13 received two-letter abbreviations derived from their names (e.g. AN for Asotin, SJ for San Juan). In King County, lack of space resulted in the exclusion of the letter code after number A-99999 was reached, with the next in sequence being 100-000, sans county designator. This exception worked for 1935 and 1936, as King was the only county with a vehicle population large enough to reach six-digit registrations.
1936: Vehicle Class Codes disappear
The vehicle class code system (“X” for passenger, “T” for Truck) that had been in place since 1917 was finally abandoned in 1936. Non-passenger vehicles had their class type spelled out, and were not county-coded. 1936 was the only year a split date was used with a centered state name.
In 1937, the state name was shifted to the left, with the expiration year following. This was the first instance of a design used for many years, and still present on Washington’s plates today. New, narrower number dies also debuted in order to facilitate six-digit registration numbers.
The location of the name and date would migrate between top and bottom over the next decade and a half. 1938 was the only year where the date preceded the state name, until the 1954 base was introduced.
1939: Golden Jubilee
Washington’s 50 years of statehood was marked by its first (and only, until 1987) use of a slogan. The state’s Golden Jubilee was commemorated by the dates of statehood and the one-time designation of the “State of Washington”
After the jubilation of 50 years of statehood subsided, the 1940 issue kicked off more than a decade of fairly standardized designs. Green and white once again became the dominant colors, with the only other major changes being a yearly switch in the location of the state name and year from bottom to top and back. 1941 would be the last year an embossed, painted border was used on passenger plates.
WWII: no metal for plates
The most notable aspect of the 1942 plates was that they were used far longer than intended: three years. With metal production being diverted to the war effort, none was available for license plates. The 1942 plates were revalidated by windshield stickers in 1943 and 1944.
With windshield stickers used for renewing 1942 plates, metal plates for 1944 are scarce. There was enough metal supply to manufacture plates (in singles, not pairs) for new registrations. These were all-numeric, lacking county code prefixes, which allowed the Department of Licenses to issue them throughout the state as needed instead of stocking quantities with each county auditor. A limited number of non-passenger plates, for example trailers, were made as well.
Standard plate issuance resumed for 1945, with the 1942 plates finally coming off bumpers after three years in use. While the 1945 issue was a return to the old practice of issuing license plates annually to all vehicles, these were produces as singles, not pairs, due to the lingering problems of sourcing metal.
Windshield stickers made a return in 1946, with all passenger vehicles retaining their 1945 plates for an extra year. Dated 1946 plates were issued to nonpassenger vehicle classes, such as trailers and trucks.
With a glut of aluminum available after the war, many states issued plates in the late 1940s with a bare aluminum background. Washington used this method in 1947, switching from steel for the first time, and it was not an ideal execution. Immediately after 1947 plates began appearing on the road, numerous complaints poured in about the bright reflection they generated. “At night headlights reflecting on the plate practically obliterate the numerals, the unpainted aluminum having the same characteristics as a mirror held to catch the sun’s rays,” complained the Spokane Safety Commissioner after the plates had been on the road only two weeks. Additionally, paint adherence was poor, frequently resulting in bare numbers.
In spite of these complaints, the plates stayed on the road for two years, as windshield stickers were again used in 1948 to revalidate plates. After two years on the road, many of the 1947 plates had lost a good portion of their green paint. Dated 1948 plates were made only for a few nonpassenger vehicle classes, such as trailers and dealers.
Unpainted aluminum plates were used again for the 1949 issue, but this time they were sandblasted with steel grit to dull the background and eliminate the bright reflection caused by the shiny metal background at night. The result was characterized by a Seattle Times columnist as “dull, drab, dreary-looking.”
With the 1950 issue, the state resurrected the practice of multi-year baseplates renewed by tabs. The plates were designed with slots over the date, which would be used to apply metal tabs, a practice common in other states. These plates were plagued by weak paint on the numbers. Even when new, the state director of licenses deemed them “shoddy, badly painted, and are not strong enough.”
Metal shortages became an issue again in 1951. Existing registrations were issued a ’51 tab to renew the 1950 plates, but as supplies ran out, dated 1951 plates were issued. As supply constraints prevented adequate stocks to be issued to each county, a non-county coded plate was produced that could be shipped to counties as needed. For a period, there were no plates available at all, and only a windshield sticker was issued to new applicants.
1952 was the final year windshield stickers were used in Washington. No dated 1952 plates were issued to passenger vehicles, only certain nonpassenger types such as trailers, dealers, and motorcycles.
1953 saw the 1950 and 1951-dated plates renewed with dated ’53 tabs.
An uncommon variant arose due to fire at the state prison (see 1954 below). After the plate mill was destroyed late in 1953, any additional plates needed before the end of the calendar year had to be sourced from the alternate supplier in Oregon. These plates looked quite different from the regular issues: they were smaller (made from leftover blanks of 1952 Hawaii plates) and used the same blocky dies as Oregon plates.
1954: the year of changes
Big changes were in store for 1954, some planned and some not. Most notably, the county code designation was switched from a prefix to a suffix. The justification from the Department of Licenses, as quoted in The Olympian, was to aid in faster identification by law enforcement, the number being a more important component for tracking down a vehicle owner than the county designation. For cost savings and mitigation of ongoing metal shortages, the original plan was to issue ’54 plates as singles, made of steel and in the same format as the 1950 plates, with a reversed color scheme. This decision would result in a number of complications and anomalies over the next year.
Production for these plates had been underway for most of 1953, when disaster struck on September 9. The plate mill at the Walla Walla Penitentiary caught fire and burned to the ground, destroying all of the plates that were on hand.
With in-state production impossible until the mill was rebuilt, the state launched a frantic search for an alternate supplier. On September 14, just five days after the fire, a contract was signed with the Screw Machine company of Portland, OR, which at the time was also making plates for Oregon, Alaska, Hawaii, and other jurisdictions. These Oregon-sourced plates differed from the pre-fire plates in size, metal (aluminum vs steel), and dies.
Some of the original plates had already been shipped to county auditors (mostly in Pierce and Spokane Counties), and in these cases were issued to the public as planned. However, most of the original run of 1954 plates was destroyed in the fire, so the vast majority of 1954 plates issued to vehicles were sourced from Screw Machine. The prison plate shop would not reopen until the production of the 1958 plates began.
An additional complication arose late in 1954. The decision to issue only a single plate for the rear of the vehicle had been controversial from the start, but trouble identifying a bank robber’s getaway car in Seattle was the tipping point for public outrage and law enforcement pushback, so at the end of 1954 the Department of Licensing acquiesced to demands for a front plate. This began an enormous effort to manufacture a second plate for every number and ship them to registrants across the state. A 1957 state audit deemed it a fiasco: costing taxpayers a quarter of a million dollars from inefficiencies and disorganization, with improper records resulting in thousands of plates being mailed to incorrect addresses and returned to state offices multiple times.
One common quirk of this situation is the inconsistencies in number layout, hyphenation, and spacing between the first batches of Oregon-made plates and the second batches of front plates. It is extremely common for pairs to have mismatched formatting as a result. In the instances where the original prison-made plates had been issued, this also resulted in completely mismatched sets of plates, where one car would have had a steel, Washington-made plate on the rear and an aluminum, Oregon-made plate on the front.
Starting in 1956, all license plates in the United States and Canada were standardized to a common size (6″ x 12,” the dimensions still in use today), based on a agreement reached between motor vehicle administrators. Washington was still using the 1954 base with renewal tabs, so while existing registrations kept their original plates, all newly-issued plates were in the new dimensions, with a design that mimicked the originals. In fact, even though these smaller plates were made for the 1956 expiration year, they were still stamped with a “54” date preceding the state name, to match the other plates on the road.
1958: the modern era begins
The modern era of license plates began in Washington in 1958, with the introduction of the now-common alphanumeric ABC 123 format on multiyear baseplates renewed with adhesive stickers. No more annual issues or metal renewal tabs. This method saved money and materials, and offered a numbering format that allowed for a greater combination of numbers to be issued.
The 1958 base plate was used, through renewal stickers, through 1962. The county coding system in place since 1935 was adapted to fit the new alphanumeric format, with King County (previously “A”) assigned AAA through AZZ, Pierce County (previously “B”) assigned BAA through BZZ, etc.
1963: the WASH scandal
A new baseplate was implemented in 1963 as a complete reissue that replaced all plates currently in use.
As a cost-savings measure, the original plan was for these to display the state name in full, followed by an embossed “63” to denote the first year of expiration, with adhesive year stickers used to renew for future years. By embossing the first year on the plate, the state claimed it would save $50,000 by not making 1963 stickers. However, an embossed “WASHINGTON 63” would not provide enough room for future years’ renewal stickers, so at the last minute the design was altered, “substituting the ugly abbreviation ‘Wash’ for the dignified full name of our state,” sniffed the Longview Daily News. An editorial in the Aberdeen World joked that “Wash 63 sounds like an emergency order in a laundry.”
Outcry over the “Wash” abbreviation was widespread enough that in 1965 the state legislature passed a law stating: “Vehicle license number plates issued by the state of Washington commencing with the next general issuance of such plates shall be so designed as to designate the name of the state of Washington in full without abbreviation.”
In response, in 1965 the design was altered to spell WASHINGTON in full. This base was undated, providing enough room for validation stickers. These plates were only issued to new registrations; the 1963 plates were not replaced and continued to be revalidated by year stickers. In fact, the 1963 plates, and all others issued thereafter, remained in use through 2000.
State law drove another change in Washington’s plates. In 1967, the legislature passed a law stating that “All vehicle license number plates issued after January 1, 1968 […] shall be treated with reflectorized materials designed to increase the visibility and legibility of such plates at night.” This resulted in another new baseplate in 1968, which again did not replace any plates currently on the road. This continued the same county-coded numbering system introduced with the 1963 plates.
The 1968 base was issued until 1982, but had several minor design evolutions, the most notable being a change to smaller, crisper dies on the state name in 1978. Another development was the introduction of a staggered registration system in 1977. Prior to this, registrations all expired on December 31 of each year. With the adoption of staggered registrations, a month sticker was added and validity was determined from the date of original registration.
The state name briefly reverted back to the old design in 1980. The county coding system was finally abandoned during this era. King County registrations had become so large that the system could no longer be adapted to accommodate the necessary amount of letter combinations.
An updated based was introduced in 1982, with the state name screened instead of embossed and the registration number no longer being coded by county.
Narrower dies were adopted in 1985, also introducing a hyphen in the registration number, starting with number LLL-000. These narrower dies also allowed the use of seven-character personalized plates for the first time.
These would be the last non-graphic plates issued in Washington.
In 1987, to commemorate Washington’s centennial in 1989, a new, fully-graphic design was introduced, which is still being issued, with minor design changes, more than 30 years later. A brand-new numbering system came with the new design, starting at 000-AAA. The state created a design contest for the new plate. The winner was Eric Booth, a high school senior in Bellingham, beating out more than 2,000 other designs. This design became the new general issue for new registrations, and owners of existing vehicles could purchase the new plate for a fee.
The “Centennial Celebration” slogan was in place two years before and after the 1989 centennial: in 1991, it was removed, but the design was otherwise unchanged. In 1997 the size of the hyphen was enlarged, starting with 000-HYB.
The Evergreen State
After 83 years of state-issued license plates, Washington for the first time displayed the state motto, Evergreen State, on its plates. The 1998 design, which ironically contains no green whatsoever, was a mild rework of the original Centennial plates. The embossed border was removed and the state name converted to block characters and moved to the top left, consistent with much of Washington’s plates since 1941. Plate 999-JNZ was the last to be issued in the old format, with 000-JOA marking the transition point to the new design.
In 2010, the numbering system that had begun at 000-AAA with the Centennial plates had finally run out, with plate 999-ZZZ being issued at the beginning of that year. Plate numbering restarted with a seven-character registration number, beginning with AAA0000.
The current format theoretically can last decades before changes are needed. Currently it has taken the state five to six years to run through a complete letter series (e.g. AAA0000 to AZZ9999), so any variety on Washington bumpers will have to come from the growing number of optional graphics.