Art vs. Real Life

Many license plates are like small works of art. Natural elements, animals, and monuments may be depicted realistically or with a particular style. Here is a comparison of graphics and their real-life counterparts.

ALASKA and the Bear

The 1976 Alaska base and 2015 optional retread feature a standing Kodiak bear. Not to be confused with the grizzly, Kodiak bears are known for their immense size. A male can stand over 10 feet tall and weigh up to 1,500 pounds.

CALIFORNIA and the Whale Tail

California has issued three varieties of its Coastal Commission specialty, known affectionately as the “Whale Tail” plate.

CONNECTICUT and the Outer Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse

The “Preserve the Sound” license plate debuted in 1992. The lighthouse opened in 1886 and became automated in 1959. A portion of each plate sale goes to the Long Island Sound Fund.

FLORIDA and the Challenger Space Shuttle

After the Challenger space shuttle disaster (January 1986), Florida memorialized the event by issuing what is generally considered the first-ever specialty plate. It shows liftoff, with the shuttle in light blue and white against bands of white and orange smoke. It’s an embellished, but lovely depiction.

HAWAII and the Rainbow

Rainbows have a cultural and mythological importance in Hawaii, and the state can boast it has some of the best rainbow-viewing on Earth. So it was no surprise when it put a rainbow on the 1991 base, which is still current. The plate’s rainbow takes artistic liberties – green and purple are noticeably absent – but it’s still an instantly recognizable symbol.

ILLINOIS and Abraham Lincoln

Illinois featured the words “Land of Lincoln” for half a century before finally committing the image of Lincoln to a plate. He has appeared on the last two bases.

INDIANA and George Rogers Clark

The Siege of Fort Vincennes was a key battle won by the Americans in the Revolutionary War. George Rogers Clark led the expedition and the 1979 Indiana license plate paid homage to the battle and to Clark. The soldiers waded through a flooded plain for part of the journey, shown on the plate and in an illustration by F.C. Yohn.

KENTUCKY and the Horse

Kentucky is famous for thoroughbreds, and they have appeared on several designs of both standard and specialty plates. The Kentucky Horse Council specialty has had three versions, the first two with an identical graphic of a foal sitting in bluegrass. The third is similar, but with the horse modified.

LOUISIANA and the Pelican

Louisiana’s state bird, the pelican, has appeared on numerous license plates. The current base and the environmental specialty are two recent examples.

MAINE and the Lobster

Maine’s famous crustacean has appeared on a base plate and on a specialty. According to Maine resident and license plate expert David Nicholson, on the specialty the lobster was originally slated to be the normal greenish-black, but changed to the more universally-recognized color of red.

MARYLAND and Fort McHenry

During the War of 1812 at the Baltimore Harbor, soldiers at Fort McHenry warded off attack from the British Navy. On the morning of September 14th, 1814, a large American flag signaled victory and inspired Francis Scott Key to write a poem which became “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Maryland’s 2010 general issue commemorated the Bicentennial of this event with a depiction of Fort McHenry with the flag and the “rocket’s red glare” and “the bombs bursting in air.”

Below are images of Fort McHenry, including an artistic rendering of the night of battle.

MICHIGAN and the Mackinac Bridge

The Mackinac Bridge opened to traffic on November 1, 1957. It is the fifth-longest suspension bridge in the world, spanning five miles across the Mackinac Straits, which separate the upper and lower peninsulas of the state of Michigan. Starting in 1997, motorists could purchase a license plate with the image of the bridge along with the slogan “Great Lakes Splendor.” The plate was redesigned in both 2007 and 2013; in the latter case it was tweaked because of visibility issues (I don’t have this variation).

MISSISSIPPI and the Magnolia

Mississippi’s state flower first appeared on plates in 1977. The magnolia has since shown up a few more times in varying ways.

MONTANA and NEBRASKA and the Western Meadowlark

The Western Meadowlark has appeared on a Montana specialty plate and on a Nebraska general issue. It is the state bird of both states.

NEVADA and the Bighorn Sheep

The Bighorn sheep first appeared on a Nevada plate as a silhouette. Then in 2003 it graced the SUPPORT WILDLIFE specialty with a faithful depiction.

NEW HAMPSHIRE and The Old Man of the Mountain

The famous “Old Man of the Mountain” rock formation, which collapsed in 2003, first appeared on 1926 plates in a profile similar to that featured on the Antique issue below. He showed up again on the US Bicentennial booster plate. On the 1987 base it reappeared in green and with detail, and on the 1999 a full-plate graphic depicts the Old Man as realistic as ever.

NEW YORK and the Statue of Liberty

For its first graphic base plate, New York went with one of its most iconic symbols: The Statue of Liberty. The year was 1986 – Lady Liberty’s 100th birthday. She appears on the current base as well, but only as a small silhouette.

NORTH CAROLINA and the Wright Flyer

The first sustained flight by an airplane occurred at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. The state commemorated this event on its 1982 base plate, which remains the predominate base today.

OREGON and Crater Lake

Crater Lake was established as a National Park in 1902. To acknowledge the centennial year of this event, Oregon released a specialty plate. It proved so popular it remained an option for two decades more. In 2022 the plate got a facelift (image coming soon hopefully), with a modified graphic and slogan, and the word “CENTENNIAL” removed.

PENNSYLVANIA and the Saw-Whet Owl

In 1993, Pennsylvania began issuance of a specialty plate featuring an image of the Northern Saw-Whet Owl. The bird has a white chest, brown feathers, and orange eyes. They reside all throughout the state, including year-round in the northwest portion.

SOUTH CAROLINA and the Palmetto

The palmetto is the state tree of South Carolina and has appeared on several bases since the 1970s. It also appeared as an embossed solid graphic in 1926 and 1927.

SOUTH DAKOTA and Mt. Rushmore

South Dakota has placed its famous monument on every plate since 1952. It has taken on different forms – decals, an embossed graphic in a box, a screened graphic, and a full plate graphic.

TENNESSEE and VIRGINIA and the Black Bear

In 2000, Tennessee began issuance of two “Volunteer for Wildlife” plates, one of which featured a black bear gazing intently (and rather cutely) at the viewer.

UTAH and the Delicate Arch

The famous “Delicate Arch,” part of Arches National Park, appeared on the state’s Centennial plate. The “Centennial” slogan and font were changed in 2008 but the graphic remained unchanged. The Arch can look different based on the time of day; the image for the plate is decidedly as orange as can be.

WASHINGTON and Mt. Rainier

The 1987 base featured a full image of Washington’s famous mountain. The base has been modified over the years except for the graphic.

WEST VIRGINIA and the Deer

In 2002 the second in a series of wildlife plates in West Virginia hit the roads. This one featured a deer standing by a mountain stream.

Images in tiled galleries:

Rainbow: Image by Jay Lamping from Pixabay

Thoroughbred: rihaij/Pixabay

Lobster: ndemello/Pixabay

Bighorn Sheep: AndiJMadsen, sledgirlMT/Pixabay

Old Man of the Mountain: Wikipedia

Statue of Liberty: LauraTara/Pixabay

Palmetto: Wikipedia

Black Bear: Image by Brigitte Werner from Pixabay

Delicate Arch: ISchneider (daytime), Pascal (sunset)/Pixabay

Black bears: Images by Brigitte Werner from Pixabay

Reference for Pennsylvania: