“Rejoice” is probably not the word most South Carolinians think of when their license tag renewal shows up in the mailbox, but back when cars were new and not welcomed by the horse and buggy crowd, license tags were a way to get guaranteed access to roads. When New York became the first state to require tags in 1901, the New York Tribune wrote, “Members of the Automobile Club of America were rejoicing” because the bill allowed cars “to be driven on any highway at a speed not to exceed fifteen miles an hour.”
South Carolina didn’t issue license plates until 16 years later. Prior to that, counties and cities issued their own tags, many of them made of porcelain.
Ben Bunton, who has been collecting tags since he was 7 years old, owns more than 2,500 South Carolina plates. He says early tags were a combination of letters and numbers that signified the type of vehicle. It wasn’t until the Great Depression that South Carolina began using vehicle tags to promote the state. “Those plates,” Ben says, “are often the ones people find most interesting.”
Starting in the late 1920s, the high level of iodine in the state’s fruits and vegetables was touted as a claim to fame. License tags issued in 1930 included “iodine” embossed vertically along one side. “The Iodine State” and “The Iodine Products State” appeared on plates in subsequent years. The iodine hype in 1930 also influenced Columbia’s new radio station to chose the call letters WIS, standing for “Wonderful Iodine State.”
In 1976, the state’s bicentennial plate was the first tag to include a graphic image, along with letters and numbers, showcasing the beloved palmetto tree. The state tree was followed by the state bird, with the Carolina wren appearing on plates issued in the 1990s.
Standard plate designs now change every 10 years, according to S.C. Division of Motor Vehicles spokesperson Julie Roy. The current “While I Breathe, I Hope” plate was distributed in 2016, sporting South Carolina’s official motto.
Standard isn’t the only option. Vanity plates and 420 specialty plates are available, and the number of specialty plates keeps growing. Some specialty plates are created by law — the University of South Carolina Women’s Basketball National Champions plate, for example. Specialty plates can also be commissioned by nonprofits, with a portion of tag fees benefiting the organization.
Though collector Ben is lukewarm about modern specialty tag designs, he counts one specialty plate among his most prized. “The most exciting plate I’ve found was one that turned up at the old Columbia Antique Mall several years back. Very few were ever issued, and only three are known to have made it to collectors: a plate for Pearl Harbor survivors,” he says.
You can learn more about Ben’s collection and S.C. license tag history at scplates.com.
For a gallery of specialty plates, visit scdmvonline.com.