History of Montana License Plates

By SUZANNE WARING

Montanans enjoy looking at vehicle license plates, often determining the owner’s home county. Frequently a license plate tells a story that the owner wants the public to know. It might be a specialty plate depicting an owner’s interest, such as the Elk Foundation, or a personalized plate conveying a message, such as “Mmmbeef,” promoting a product.

Over the years the appearance of the Montana license plate has evolved, depending on regulations, available materials, preferences of the Montana Highway Patrol, or vehicle owners’ requests.

License Plate Beginnings

In 1891, the second legislature established a tax on property, but it was not until 1913 that motor vehicles were considered taxable property. The purpose of the tax was to construct, maintain, and improve Montana’s roads. Vehicle horsepower determined the fee of between $5 and $20.

The Registrar of Motor Vehicles, a new position that year, designated a sequential number for each vehicle but did not issue a plate. Owners decided how to display the number. Often, they inscribed it on a piece of leather.

Surprisingly, 14,500 license plates were issued in 1914. In comparison, the Department of Motor Vehicles issued 840,000 plates this last year in a wide array of standard, personal, and specialty designs. On any given day, 700 to 8,000 individuals order license plates.

Montana law requires the issuance of a new design every four years.

Material, Size, Process, Numbering, and Font

In 1914, the state began issuing steel plates. With the shortage of steel during World War II, plates where made of soybean fiberboard.

It soon became obvious that animals — such as goats, cows, and mice—found the plates delectably tasty, leaving owners with chewed plates or no plates at all.

Aluminum replaced steel in 1960, with reflectorized materials added in 1967.

Standardized Plates

Not until 1957 did license plates become a standard size. Montana, along with the other states and the Canadian provinces, agreed with the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, the Automobile Manufacturers Association, and the National Safety Council that the size of the license plates would be 6 inches high by 12 inches wide, with standardized mounting holes.

Plates were manufactured out of state until 1928 when the Montana prisoners started making them. In fact, the words, “Prison Made,” were stamped onto the plates between 1939 and 1957.

The first printed, rather than stamped plates came out in 2006. Recently, a new printer was acquired, replacing a 14-year-old printer that had manufactured just short of 10 million plates.

The county numbers we have learned over the years were added in 1926, but they designated the population of the counties in 1914 from the largest populated county (Silver Bow County), having the prefix of 1, to the smallest populated county (Lincoln County), having 56.

Over the years, the county population density has changed, but the numbers representing the counties has remained the same. Businesses have used the county code numbers along with the county name on promotional pieces because readers would save the advertisements to keep the county number information. Today, the designated county number is still used on standard plates, but in a smaller font size.

The outline of the state on the license plate was first used in 1933 and has continued, except for a few solitary years.

Just recently, a more legible font appeared on Montana license plates, due to driver complaints that confused some of the old numbers and letters. The new numbers and letters are larger, bolder, and slightly rounded with a little more spacing between them.

Slogan and Design

A slogan was not introduced until 1950 when the phrase, “Treasure State” was chosen. During 1957-1962, the slogan was dropped only to reappear from 1963-1966.

In 1966, A.B. Guthrie Jr., author of The Big Sky, gave the state permission to use “Big Sky Country.” That highly popular slogan was used until 2010 when “Treasure State” was reintroduced.

The full word “Montana” was not present on the state’s plate from 1915 through 1927. Instead, the state designation was represented by the letters “MONT.”

The bison skull was added to the lower left-hand corner between 1973 and 1991. At times the skull has been used to separate the county number from the vehicular identification number. For years, the vehicle identification number for each county started with the number 1. Some individuals sought to attain low numbers.

To celebrate the state’s centennial starting in 1987, the word “Montana” was screened on the bottom-right corner with a brown Montana Centennial logo representing the “O.” This plate also had an outline of jagged mountains in the top-left corner.

Colors

Over the years, the plates have been many colors with light numbering on a dark background or vice versa. Red worked its way into the design, often as a third color, after 1976. The standard plate sold today has a navy-blue background with a white state outline and white numbers, but several alternate standard designs are available.

Specialty License Plates

The State’s first specialty plates — or vanity plates — were created in 1958 for Amateur Radio Operators, but in 1991, they became more available for other groups. The demand was great for colleges and universities, Purple Heart Recipients, Pearl Harbor Survivors, and veterans from all military divisions.

The Lewis and Clark Bicentennial and Glacier National Park plates were the first generic specialty plates offered to the public.

Today, 261 vanity plate options are available in 13 categories: Agriculture and Forestry, Antique, Arts and Culture, Collegiate, Education, Government and Communities, Military, Museum and History, Other, Parks and Environment, Service Organization and Associations, Sports and Recreation, Wildlife and Other Animals, and Youth Groups. The extra charge for a Specialty Plate goes to the group or organization on the plate.

Choosing the plate for your vehicle today is almost like choosing candy in a candy store. Before you purchase your next plate, visit dojmt.gov/driving/plate-designs-and-fees to check out the many choices. MSN

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