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DC License Plates Through the Years

License plates by Richard Dragon/DCplates.net

From the “Nation’s Capital” to today’s politically-charged “Taxation Without Representation,” take a peek through photographs cataloguing changes in the district’s license plates.

1903 and 1907—DC’s First License Plates

DC passed its first motor vehicle registration law in 1903—motorists were required to purchase a plate at their own expense. In 1907 the city began producing porcelain white-on-black plates for motorists to purchase for a modest $1 fee. The city didn’t charge registration fees until 1918.

Photographs courtesy of DCplates.net

1966 and 1968—”Nation’s Capital”

Photographs by Richard Dragon/DCplates.net

The first DC license plate to include a slogan—”The Nation’s Capital”—was offered in 1953. This was also the year when plates were made in the familiar 6-by-12-inch shape seen today. Between 1953 and 1966, DC officials experimented with different combinations of letters and numbers for general-issue plates. By 1966 they settled on an all-number format.

1977—”Bicentennial”

Photograph by Richard Dragon/DCplates.net

In 1976, DC officials celebrated the bicentenntial by issuing a new license plate with “1776 Bicentenntial 1976” written across the top. According to DCplates.net, the style template—blue lettering on a white background framed on top and bottom with horizontal red lines—was the first instance of the basic design still used today. The 1976 plate was the second in the nation to be made with graphic reflective sheeting.

1991 and 1998—”A Capital City”

Photos courtesy of Richard Dragon/DCplates.net

Beginning in 1984, the slogan printed on DC plates changed a total of three times: to “A Capital City” in 1984, to “Celebrate & Discover” in 1991, and to “Taxation Without Representation” in 2000. The 2000 “protest” plate was designed to mimic the slogan of British colonists—”no taxation without representation”—just before the American Revolution. The phrase appears on DC license plates in objection to DC representatives being limited to a non-voting role in the House of Representatives.

2003 and 2015—”Taxation Without Representation”

Photograph by Richard Dragon/DCplates.net

Since 2000, U.S. Presidents have alternatively embraced and rejected displaying the plates on presidential vehicles. Toward the end of his term, President Bill Clinton had the new plates affixed to presidential vehicles. President George W. Bush had them removed when he came into office, and President Barack Obama continued to leave them off for his first term. However, in 2013 President Obama had the “Taxation Without Representation” plates once again added to presidential vehicles, noting in a White House press release “how patently unfair it is for working families in D.C. to work hard, raise children and pay taxes, without having a vote in Congress.”

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