Vermont's first law governing motor vehicles was passed by the Legislature in 1894 and provided that:
"The owner or person in charge of a carriage, vehicle or engine propelled by steam, except road rollers, shall not cause or permit the same to pass over, through or upon any public street or highway, except on railroad tracks, unless he sends, at least one-eighth of a mile in advance of the same, a person of mature age to notify and warn all persons traveling upon or using the street or highway with horses or other domestic animals; and at night such person shall, except in an incorporated village or city, carry a red light."
The 1894 act had been passed as a preventative measure, and not because of a specific need for it, as the first automobile did not appear in Vermont until 1898. This was a one-seat Stanley Steamer purchased by Dr. J. H. Lindsley of Burlington from the Stanley Brothers in Massachusetts at a cost of about $900. Due to the urging of a newly formed "automobile club", which was formed to facilitate motoring by improving the highways and maintaining the rights of automobile owners, the legislature repealed the 1894 law during the 1900 session.
In 1904, the Legislature passed Vermont's first registration law. This act required that all automobiles be registered with the Secretary of State on or before May 1, 1905. It is not known for sure if the state issued license plates at this time, or whether the owner provided his own plates. However, soon after May 1, 1905, the state was issuing white on blue enameled iron plates bearing the words "Vermont Automobile Register" and the number assigned to the vehicle. This number was also to be displayed on the lights of the vehicle at night.
The first registration law produced a total of 373 registrations. All vehicles were registered without regard to the type of vehicle, with the exception of dealers.
In 1906, the Legislature passed an act that included the first explicit provision for uniform plates provided by the state. These plates were to be made of enameled iron, at least six by eleven inches, white surfaced, with a black margin of 1/4 inch and contain the letters "VT", two inches high with 1/2 inch stroke. The number of the vehicle would be black, four inches high with ¾ inch stroke and would be one inch apart and before the letters "VT". Two plates were provided to each person registering a vehicle, except motorcycles, and they were to be displayed plainly on the front and rear of the vehicle, the rear plate to be illuminated from the outside at night.
The year 1908 brought a new law requiring the registration of vehicles to be on an annual basis. As a result, the plates were dated for the first time, the date being placed under the letters "VT". The automobile owner could, with the permission of the Secretary of State, paint the number of his vehicle on the radiator instead of attaching the front license plate.
In 1912, the Legislature modified the design of the plates. The spacing of the numbers was reduced, and the date and "VT" were moved, one to each end of the plate, vertically. The plates were still required to have a white background, but the Secretary of State was allowed to change the color of the numbers annually. These changes were to take effect with the 1913 registration year.
To indicate the growing use of the automobile, on June 15, 1913, there had been 4,538 cars registered, compared with 373 just eight years before.
The year 1916 saw a major change in the license plates themselves, as this was the first year of pressed steel plates. Before this, the plates had been made by out-of-state companies specializing in enameled ironwork. These new steel plates were of basically the same design, only the color was left to the option of the Secretary of State, so long as there was a marked contrast between the background and the numbers. These plates were also required to be of a different color each year, which resulted in the color of several colleges in Vermont being represented in the next few years. Apparently, it was felt the difference in colors each year was sufficient to tell the plates apart, as the years 1916, 1917, and 1918 were not dated. However, these plates could be distinguished from one another even if they had no paint remaining on them, as different dyes were used for stamping them. The 1917 plates had flatter, wider numbers than the other years, and the 1916 plates had larger slots in the top than the 1918 plates.
In 1919, the date appeared on the plates again. During this same year, the Legislature reduced the size of the plates to 12" x 4 5/8", with 3" numbers and a 5/8" stroke, 1/2" apart to become effective with the 1920 registration year. After 1921 the plates were required to be at least 14" from the ground and fastened so they did not swing.
There were approximately 60,000 registered vehicles by the year 1923.
For approximately 20 years prior to the 1925 legislative session, motor vehicle laws had been accumulating without any planning until finally, in 1925, the Legislature passed a massive reorganization plan concerning all motor vehicle laws. With some revisions, this act is still the basis of present-day motor vehicle laws. The 1927 session took the next step by making the break with the Secretary of State's office, creating an entirely separate Motor Vehicle Department with a commissioner as its head.
The plate size was changed again in 1926 to a size similar to the 6"x12" plates of today. They remained this size until the metal shortage came about during World War II.
In 1935, the registration year was changed from a calendar year basis to April 1 thru March 31. This change was made to save changing plates in the more severe part of winter, as a result, the 1935 plates were made valid for the extra three months. To make this clear, the 1936 plates read "Vermont Expires March 31, 1937" across the bottom. The wording on these plates angered some people at the thought that Vermont would expire. Therefore, the 1937 plates were changed to read "Vermont to April 1, 1939". As a result of this, there were never any plates dated 1936.
The 1935 legislative session was a significant one in Motor Vehicle history. First, an act was passed authorizing the state to utilize inmates in the state prison for manufacturing the license plates. This practice remains today. It is unknown where the plates were made between 1916 and 1935, but there is some speculation they were made at the prison during that period also. Secondly, this session also resulted in the state's first motor vehicle inspection law being passed.
Due to a metal shortage brought on by World War II, the 1943 legislature suspended all specifications for the license plates for the duration of the war, plus one year, and left these to be determined by the Commissioner. This allowed the Commissioner to issue small tabs to be mounted on the 1942 plates, which were thereby revalidated for 1943. Because of the scarcity of metal, these tabs were made from the tin cans the prisoners' food came in. The tabs displayed the date and registration number but for the only time no state designation.
In 1944, the metal shortage had eased enough so that regular plates were issued again, although these were somewhat shorter than before. In 1945, the legislature made permanent, the act allowing the Commissioner to determine the specifications for the plates. This act also allowed the Commissioner the option of using only one plate per car, to be attached to the rear.
In 1947, aluminum was used for the first time, replacing steel as the material from which the plates were made.
The first use of a slogan on Vermont plates came about in 1948 with the addition of "Green Mountains". These plates had originally been scheduled to be black and white, but the Commissioner decided, perhaps because of the slogan, to change to green and gold. The "Green Mountains" slogan was used through 1950, and the present green and white combination was started in 1949.
In 1949, the size of the plates was changed to two standard sizes. Plates with four numbers or less were 6" x 10" and those with five numbers were 6" x 11". The next year saw over 100,000 cars registered in Vermont. It is unknown how the numbering of the plates was arranged. It is likely that after 99,999, there was a combination of one letter and four numbers, but that is not certain. It is interesting to note that on the four-digit plates in 1950, there was no painted border, while on the five digits plates, there was.
In 1951, there was a system of numbering used which allowed for more than 100,000 registrations without using more than five digits on any plate. This involved using a combination of one or two letters followed by one, two, or three numbers. However, this system proved to be unworkable and in 1952, numbers over 100,000 were prefixed with an "E" plus four numbers.
As more cars were registered, the letters for prefixes on those plates over 100,000 were increased. In 1954, "A" was for 100,000 to 110,000 and "E" was for over 110,000. In 1957, "C" was also used and by 1962 "B" was used. "F" prefixes were added to plates produced in 1964.
In 1957, an agreement was reached among all the states and Canada standardizing the size of plates at 6"x12".
An act of the 1957 Legislative session authorized the issuance of initial or "vanity" license plates.
The 1965 Legislative session approved an act that changed the expiration date of the plates to the last day in February for passenger, dealer, repair and municipal plates, and April 30 for all others. This same year it was required that future plates be reflectorized in whole or in part. This change was implemented with the 1967 plates. This was also the year in which the Department of Motor Vehicles hoped to start issuing multi-year plates. The plates issued in 1967 omitted the word "See" which had preceded "Vermont" since 1957 which left a space in case DMV was permitted to use a revalidation sticker. The 1967 Legislature did authorize the use of a sticker to revalidate the plate, and this was issued in 1968. 1967 also saw the introduction of debossed plates where the letters, numbers, etc. are sunken instead of raised. These plates were the first in Vermont to have six numbers on them, as the old letter-number system was abandoned.
In 1969 new plates were issued, which were identical to the 1967 plates, except the word "See" had been restored and the space for the sticker was now in the space where the date had been. These were the first undated plates to be used since 1918. Because of the poorer legibility of the six-digit plates, the 1969 plates had a one letter four-number combination, but this was used for plates over 10,000 instead of over 100,000. The letter was either ahead of the number or following it. This combination made Vermont plates amongst the most legible in the nation. The letters used in front of the numbers were A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, K, L, M, N, P, R, S, T, V, X, and Y. The same series was also used, following the number. These letters had no special significance and were not issued in alphabetical order. These plates were revalidated in 1970 by stickers and were revalidated a second time in 1971.
The plates issued in 1972 would be of a similar design to the 1969 plates, except the date was stenciled in the place for the revalidation stickers. A sticker would be issued the following year to be placed over the stenciled date.
For the 1984 registration year, a new style license plate was designed. This plate had a white box around the center section.
In 1987 the Legislature directed the Commissioner of Motor Vehicles to issue special number plates to former prisoners of war.
In 1988 legislation was enacted that called for the replacement of any remaining old issue plates. All remaining old plates were replaced at no charge to the registrant. If the registrant wished to keep the same plate number and that plate number was not a special or low number plate, the applicant had to pay a $15.00 one time fee. This 18-month plate reissue project was implemented in January 1989.
In 1989, Legislation amended the number of special characters available on a license plate from 5 to 7. The Department used this opportunity to change the numbering series for regular issue license plates in order to expand the number of plates available for issuance. The Department began issuing 7 character special plates on January 1, 1990. The new plates used an AAA NNN (alpha/numeric) series for regular issue plates. The Department also took the opportunity, in December 1989, to suspend the issuance and begin the recall of special ("vanity") plates displaying the "&" and "#" characters that had previously been available. This was in response to a mistaken identity case by the Vermont State Police due to the inability of the NCIC (National Crime Information Center) system to accept these plate characters.
The 1989 legislative session also authorized the Commissioner of Motor Vehicles to issue special "Safety Organization" license plates. Safety organizations are defined as groups that provide police and fire protection, rescue squads, national guard, together with those organizations required to respond to public emergencies. It also includes amateur radio operators licensed by the US Federal Communications Commission.
The safety organization license plates are regular issue Vermont license plates with the "Vermont" and "Green Mountain State" legends, but an association logo or symbol has been added to the right-center section of the license plate. Amateur Radio Operator license plates are issued with the FCC Call Sign of the applicant as the registration number.
The Department of Motor Vehicles currently issues 4 types of Safety Organization license plates, those being: 1) Vermont Amateur Radio Operators; 2) Vermont Firefighters; 3) Vermont National Guard, and: 4) Vermont Ambulance Association ("EMS").
In 1987, the Legislature had authorized special plates for Ex-Prisoners of War. Special plates for Pearl Harbor survivors were authorized in 1991. The Ex-Prisoner of War and Pearl Harbor Survivor license plates are individually manufactured license plates made by using a silkscreen printing process. The Ex-Pow license plates display "Ex-Prisoner of War" as a legend on the bottom of the plate instead of "Green Mountain State" and display a color insert of the Prisoner of War Medal in the center of the plate. The vehicle registration number includes a "POW" prefix. The Pearl Harbor Survivor license plates display "Pearl Harbor Survivor" as a bottom legend and display a color insert of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association in the center of the plate. The vehicle registration number includes a "PHS" prefix. Further recognition of Vermont's veterans took place in 1996 with the authorization of a plate for Purple Heart Medal recipients. As of November 11, 1998, Vermont began issuing special Vermont Veterans license plates.
The Department of Motor Vehicles has also had some experience developing and managing commemorative license plates. Commemorative license plates are not registration number plates but are picture plates issued in a recognition of an anniversary. These plates are issued to be mounted on the front of a motor vehicle covering the front license plate, which must remain on the vehicle. When commemorative plates are issued, they may be displayed only for a statutory period of time. As of the writing of this article, Vermont has had three commemorative plates:
- Republic of Vermont 1777-1791 - These plates were issued in 1976 to Commemorate Vermont's bicentennial as an independent republic from 1777 to 1791. The plates were permitted to be displayed on motor vehicles until July 1, 1991. The Department sold these plates for $5.00 each.
- Vermont Bicentennial 1791 - 1991 - These plates were issued in 1990 in conjunction with the Vermont Statehood Bicentennial Commission to commemorate the 200 years of Vermont statehood. All revenue in excess of production costs were transferred to the Commission to provide funding for the Vermont statehood bicentennial celebration in 1991. The plates were permitted to be displayed on the front of a motor vehicle, over the regular registration plate until December 31, 1995. 37,000 were sold.
- Vermont Masonic Organization Bicentennial - These plates were issued in 1994 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Masonic organization in Vermont.
In 1997, Vermont began issuing Conservation license plates with a color picture of a Peregrine falcon. This plate was Vermont's first "graphic" plate and a portion of the proceeds from the sale of these plates went to support non-game wildlife programs and to provide grants for local watershed projects. By December 31, 1999, more than 9,000 sets had been issued.
On November 11, 1998, Vermont began issuing Vermont Veteran's license plates which display an American flag on the left side. They are available to Vermont's 62,000 veterans.
Vietnam Veterans of America license plates became available in March 1999 and are available to Vermont members of the Vietnam Veterans Association.
In 2003, the department began issuing "Building Bright Futures" plates. Funds for these plates go toward the Vermont Building Bright Futures fund, supporting the development and expansion of Vermont child care facilities.
In 2006, Vermont began issuing 'Catamount' conservation plates featuring a color picture of a mountain lion of the type that used to roam Vermont. The original Peregrine falcon plates would still be available, however, until depletion of the on-hand supply of them.
The Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles presently stocks and issues seventy-two (72) different types of license plates. There are currently 711,951 (01/16/08) registered motor vehicles on file.
The license plates issued by the Department are the standard size 6"x12" or 4"x7" issued as pairs or single plates. With some exceptions, the plates issued are white numbers/letters on a green background. The plates are manufactured by inmates at Vermont Correctional Industries at the facility in Windsor, Vermont.
Today's plates are cut from 0.032 gauge aluminum sheets and are bonded to preprinted reflectorizing sheeting. The sheeting material is preprinted green top and bottom and white in the center. The sheeting is preprinted with the maple tree in the upper left corner, "VERMONT" centered on top, and "GREEN MOUNTAIN STATE" centered on the bottom. Plate numbers are pressed into the plates with debossing dies. Debossing depresses the numbers into the plates as opposed to embossing which raises the numbers from the back. A rim die forms the shapes on the surface of the plate. The plates are then processed through a roller coating machine that applies transparent green ink to the raised center section of the plate leaving the numbers as reflectorized white sheeting. The plates are cured in a paint drying room, then dipped into a protective clear coating and again dried. The plates are manufactured for a minimum life of 6 years.
Vermont license plates returned to the Department by the public are recycled. DMV personnel collect and store the license plates after voiding any validation stickers. The plates are then transported to Vermont Correctional Industries where they are cut up to make them unusable. The scrap material is sold to a recycling company in New Hampshire who ships the scrap to a facility in the Mid-West where the aluminum is smelted for reuse.
Much of this report through the 1960s was taken from a term paper written by, then UVM undergraduate, Gary Irish of Jericho, Vermont. Our sincere thanks to Mr. Irish for helping to preserve Vermont's license plate and motor vehicle history.