Potatoes first showed up on Idaho plates in 1928. The elongated spud took up practically the whole plate. Idahoans hated it because, 1). They didn’t care to be a rolling advertisement for tubers, and 2). Tourists stole them for souvenirs. Newspapers editorialized against them. A couple of editorial headlines read, “Our Licenses Should Not Be Billboards,” “Tasty Indeed—But Hard to Read.”
The Idaho Secretary of State’s office was flooded with request to promote other products on the Gem State’s plates. After a year of complaints, the state went back to plain numbers in 1929.
Idaho’s 1928 spud plate is often credited with being the first advertising plate in the nation. If so, it shares that distinction with Massachusetts. They put a small cod on their plates in 28 and 29, dropping the fish probably because it began to smell.
In Idaho, potatoes did not go away. In 1947 a legislator from Bonneville County proposed putting a picture of a potato on the plates permanently. Wisely—if I may use that term in reference to the Idaho Legislature—they placated him with a two-year trial. The slogan on the bottom of the plates in 48 and 49 was “World Famous Potatoes.” In case that was too subtle for you, the silver plates featured a large, full-color baked potato sticker slapped on in the middle of the plate.
The decals cost only 4 cents each, but extra expense was incurred when officials found out the decal wouldn’t hold up unless the aluminum-colored plates got an extra coat of shellack.
The 1948 plates marked another milestone in Idaho’s license plate history. That was the year prisoners at the Idaho State Penitentiary began manufacturing them. The warden of the prison had a little fun with Governor C.A. Robbins when they concocted a press event to introduce the potato plates. They had dummied up a plate with a decal of a “curveful woman” in the center instead of a potato.
“My gosh, governor, we made a mistake and stamped out 20,000 plates with the design of this woman on it instead of the Idaho potato!” said the warden. That correspondence course in comedy really paid off.
Dare I say “predictably” residents hated the real potato plate? The baked potato with a pat of butter on top looked like a large goose dropping from a car length back.
Helen Miller, a Democratic representative from Glenns Ferry was quoted in the Idaho Statesman saying, “We give thanks the potato mutilation will only be a two-year period and not a permanent nuisance.” She went on to say, “If the next legislature favors the continuation of the practice to mutilate the license plate for advertising purposes and the identification lettering is kicked around, the highway patrol eventually will be using binoculars to identify the smaller lettering.”
The 1950 plate was potato-free.
But those rolling mini signs were just too tempting to leave to just letters and numbers. The slogan World Famous Potatoes came back in 1953, sans potato, disappeared in ’54 and ’55, and came back in ’56. In 1957 “World” was dropped from the slogan, making it “Famous Potatoes.” That’s the slogan that has stuck ever since, though you can buy your way out of it by getting a personalized or specialty plate.
There was another way to get out of displaying the Famous Potatoes slogan on your Idaho license plates back in the 1980s. That story tomorrow.