Monday, September 26, 2011

Playing the License Plate Game Educates Young and Old in the Geography, History of Our 50 States; Added Bonus: A Quiet Car Ride


When we were kids and our parents took us on long car drives, we had a series of car games that would keep us busy. One of them was the license plate game, a no-frills, no-cost entertainment masquerading as a geography lesson that couldn't be learned as easily in the classroom. With pen or pencil in hand and secretly delighted with the discovery of a west coast plate or even a southern one, we diligently and competitively recorded our license plate discoveries with no prize for the winner other than the satisfaction of beating a sibling. My mother was no fool, the intensity of the game made for a very quiet car ride! Recently on a car trip with my two older grandsons, I was pleased to notice their interest in the same thing.

Many of the plates have changed since the days we played the game and many of the slogans appearing on the plates have changed as well. Being in Texas this past weekend, I noticed the nickname "The Lone Star State" on car license plates and I was curious about where the name came from. The 'lone star' dates back to the days when Texas was part of Mexico. The Lone Star flag was the national flag of the Republic until Texas transferred its status to statehood on February 19, 1846, when it became the state flag. The Texas flag is the only U.S. state flag to have previously served as a flag of the recognized independent country. It is probably the most recognizable flag in our country, second only to the Star Spangled Banner. Attempts have been made to give other nicknames to the state: The Beef State, the Jumbo State,  Super-American State, the Banner State, and the Blizzard State have all been suggested at one time or another. 

So for the record, here are the nicknames, license plate names, official and unofficial from the rest of the 50 states and the District of Columbia:

Alabama has no official nickname but because of its central position in the cotton-growing area it is sometimes known as the Cotton State or the Cotton Plantation State. The first Alabamians were sometimes known as "lizards", which gave the state its earlier nickname of Lizard State back in 1845. In more recent times the state has been known as the Yellowhammer State, from Civil War days, and many people believe that it derives from the species of woodpecker - in reality, it arose from the yellow colour of the home-dyed uniforms that the Alabama troops wore during the Civil War. Occasionally, Alabama also gets the Camelia State. While there is no official nickname for the state, The Heart of Dixie is the most commonly used. It was introduced by the state's Chamber of Commerce in the 1940s for publicity purposes, and in 1951 was approved by the legislature for inclusion on licence plates, although the first of these did not appear until four years later.

Alaska also has no official name but the 49th State is the most obvious, However, Alaska is more commonly, unofficially, known as The Last Frontier, or The Land of the Midnight Sun. Alaska licence plates display North to the Future.

Arizona was called the Baby State when it was admitted to the union in 1912 but it is also known as
The Valentine State, based on the fact that it was admitted on Valentine's Day. Other names through the years were: Apache State, Aztec State, Sand Hill State, Sunset State and Grand Canyon State which is used on the license plates now.

Arkansas was originally called the Bear State but was also known as The Bowie State (after the Bowie knife), The Toothpick State, the Hot-water State (after the numerous hot springs), The Wonder State, The Razorback State, The Land of Opportunity for many years and on the state license: The Natural State.

California was first named The Gold State, because of the Gold Rush of 1848 but also known as El Dorado at one time and The Grape State because of the wine produced there. "Gold" was changed to "Golden" in 1867, and has since been known as The Golden State which is on the licence plates. 

Colorado was admitted to the union 100 years after the founding and then became known as The Centennial State. Because of the abundance of silver mines, it was also called The Silver State, but which Nevada disputed its right to as early as 1871. Colorado remains The Centennial State, but it is The Mountain State appears on licence plates.

Connecticut was first known as The Wooden Nutmeg State, and then just The Nutmeg State. but the fact that the first formal constitution written on American soil, in Hartford, 1639, gave it The Constitution State, a nickname that was made the state's official nickname in 1959, and which appears on licence plates.

Delaware's nickname, The First State, is aptly named because Delaware was the first state to be admitted to the Union in 1787.

District of Columbia is not a state but The Nation's Capital appears on its licence plates.

Florida was once known as The Peninsula State for obvious reasons but was also called The Everglades State, The Orange State, The Citrus State), The Flower State and The Gulf State. The Sunshine State on appears on its licence plates.

Georgia has no official nickname but in the past was known as The Pine State, The Cracker State, The Buzzard State, The Goober State but the name that appears on licence plates is The Peach State because the peach is the official state fruit since 1995.

Hawaii's fans call it Paradise of the Pacific, or Crossroads of the Pacific and sometimes the Pineapple State. The Aloha State appears on the state licence.

Idaho has been nicknamed Gem of the Mountains, or more recently The Gem State. But Land of the Famous Potato and Spud State appear on the licence plates.

Illinois was once called The Sucker State after the sucker fish and was also referred to as Garden of the West, The Garden State and The Corn State being just three of them. But because Lincoln began his political career in Illinois its slogan became Land of Lincoln.

Indiana has no official name but The Hoosier State has been around since the 1830s. "Hoosier" was any rough person in the Wild West,. Indiana licence plates display the motto, The Hospitality State.

Iowa has no official name but "Hawkeye State"is applied to the state perhaps from "The Last of the Mohicans" - alternatively, or as a tribute to the Indian leader, Chief Black Hawk. A popular, recent, semi-official nickname is the Corn State, which has appeared on the state licence plates.

Kansas has had more nicknames than any other state. The Battleground of Freedom, The Garden of the West, The Garden State,  The Squatter State, The Grasshopper State, The Cyclone State and The Dust Bowl State. It has also been called The Salt of the Earth and The Jayhawker State. Kansas itself favored  Sunflower State, which is the official nickname because the sunflower is the state flower). But The Wheat State appears on its licence plates.

Kentucky is known as The Bluegrass State since the time of the Civil War which was derived from the green grass with bluish buds produced in the spring that give the grass a distinctly blue color. Over the years, Kentucky has been known as the Hemp State, the Rock-Ribbed State and the Tobacco State.

Louisiana has been the Pelican State because the Pelican is also the official state bird. It was also called Creole State, the Sugar State, Child of the Mississippi, and the Bayou State which is the name on the state's licence plates.

Maine has been known as the Pine Tree State and the Old Dirigo State. Licence plates in Maine read Vacationland.

Maryland has had numerous nicknames among them Old Line State, from the Maryland Line in the old Colonial army, Terrapin State, Maryland Free State, The Monumental State,  the Oyster State and also the Chesapeake State, the name on its licence plates.


Massachusetts is a commonwealth, usually known as the Bay State alluding to the colony of Massachusetts Bay, but was also known as the Pilgrim State and the Puritan State.  Massachusetts licence plates currently say The Spirit of America.

Michigan was known as The Wolverine State since 1846, though there is no evidence that wolverines actually existed in the state. Michigan is also known as the Lake State, or the Great Lakes State because of its proximity to Lake Michigan.

The official nickname of Minnesota is the North Star State, and the state seal has the motto L'Etoile du Nord on it. It is also known as the Gopher State, the Bread and Butter State or Bread Basket of the Nation, Cream Pitcher of the Nation, and the Wheat State and Playground of the Nation. Minnesota licence plates have 10,000 Lakes on them.

Mississippi was once known as the Mudcat State after a large catfish that lived in the river mud. Also known as the Bayou State, Eagle State, Groundhog State and the Hospitality State which appears on the licence plates. But because of the abundance of the magnolia the modern nickname is the Magnolia State.

Missouri has been known as the Iron Mountain State, Bullion State, the Lead State, the Ozark State, the Cave State, and the Pennsylvania of the West. The modern nickname of the Show Me State which also appears on licence plates, might have been from a phrase included in a speech by a Missouri congressman, William Vandiver.

Montana was the Bonanza State from the rich mineral deposits and the Stub-Toe State but the rich gold and silver deposits have led it now to be known as the Treasure State although the wide open spaces have also produced Big Sky Country appears on the state's licence plates.

Nebraska was once known as The Antelope State and the Black Water State. But the legislatures has already passed an act in 1895 which declared the state as the Tree Planters State. The Cornhusker State, appears on the licence plates.

Nevada was known the Battle-Born State and is still used today, having been officially adopted as the state slogan in 1937.  It has been called sarcastic names like Divorce State  but eventually became the Silver State which is what appears on the state's licence plates today.

New Hampshire was once known as the Granite State, White Mountain State, Switzerland of America and the Mother of Rivers. New Hampshire licence plates have the state motto, Live Free or Die!

New Jersey was once known as Mosquito State, Camden and Aboy State, and the blue uniforms of the Civil war gave it the Jersey Blue State. Today, unofficially,  New Jersey is known as the Garden State, a name dating back to 1876 from a speech at the Centennial Exhibition. It has appeared on state licence plates since about 1954.

New Mexico has been called the Sunshine State, the Cactus State, and the Spanish State. Land of Enchantment appears on licence plates.

Some have called New York the Excelsior State, the Knickerbocker State (named after Dutch settlers pants) and at one time The Gateway to the West. George Washington referred to New York state as "the seat of Empire" in 1784, he set the seed for the state's long-term nickname which appeared in around 1820 - the Empire State. It is this which appears on state licence plates.

North Carolina was once known as the Old North State, Land of the Sky and the Tarheel State which dates back to the mid 19th century. North Carolinians were known as "tarboilers" as early as 1845, also as "Tar Heels". The Wright Brothers launched their first flight in North Carolina and this has led to First In Flight, a nickname/motto which now appears on car licence plates.

A local ground squirrel, the flickertail, gave North Dakota its Flickertail State nickname but it was also have given the state its modern nickname which appears on car licence plates: Peace Garden State. North Dakota was also known as the Roughrider State. where

Ohio was sometimes known as the Yankee State since many settlers had come from New England, but some called it Mother of Presidents, where more than half a dozen presidents had started their lives. However, he state tree, a variety of horse chestnut, gives the state its current nickname of the Buckeye State. Ohio licence plates declare The Heart of it All.

In Oklahoma, many early settlers snuck across the border and made claims there. When the first official settlers were allowed across, they found these "sooners" already in possession of the land that they were hoping to take. This led to the state being called the Sooner State. According to some Oklahoma licence plates, Oklahoma is OK. perhaps a reference to the title song from "Oklahoma."

Oregon was one of several states called the Sunshine State but was also called Webfoot State and Hard-case State. But Oregon's state animal is the beaver so the state is called the Beaver State. Oregon licence plates say Pacific Wonderland.

Pennsylvania has one of the oldest state nicknames which also appears on its licence plates). The Keystone State is from a rally at which Pennsylvania was toasted as "the keystone in the union". It was also called the Coal State and Steel State and the Quaker State.

Rhode Island has no official nickname but as the smallest state is often called Little Rhody or  the Smallest State). In 1847, it was being referred to as the Plantation State. Because of its location, it is referred to as the Ocean State, and this is what appears on its licence plates.

The palmetto palm has been associated with South Carolina since colonial days, and the nickname Palmetto State has been around since 1843. Other nicknames were Rice State, the Swamp State, the Iodine State, the Sand-lapper State, Keystone of the South Atlantic, and the Seaboard State. State licence plates use the first words of the song "Nothing Could be Finer".

South Dakota was once known as the Blizzard State, the Artesian State and the Land of Plenty. It was also known as the Sunshine State until 1980. It is now officially called the Mount Rushmore State, which appears in words on the state flag. Licence plates declare Great Faces, Great Places.

Tennessee is known officially and on its licence plates as the Volunteer State, a name which goes back  either to 1812, when the volunteer soldiers showed particular courage in the Battle of New Orleans, or to 1847 when the Governor called for three regiments to serve in the Mexican War, and 30,000 men volunteered. The state was also known as the Lion's Den, the Big Bend State, the Hog and Hominy State and the Butternut State as a result.

The first settlers in Utah were the Mormons. Its common nickname is the Mormon State or variations Land of the Mormons, Land of the Saints, Deseret State. "Deseret" and the nickname of the Beehive State. The only "non-Mormon" nickname is the Salt Lake State.

Vermont seems to have always been called The Green Mountain State which is also on the licence plates. This name comes from "Green Mountain Boy", a name for an inhabitant going back to 1772, in turn named after the militia of the previous year which was organised to protect the state against the New Yorkers.

Virginia has the oldest state nickname, Old Dominion which derives from Ancient Dominion, the nickname for the state from the end of the 17th century. Also known as the Mother of States and the Cavalier State. Virginia's licence plates say Visit Virginia!

The many forests of Washington state produced the nickname the Evergreen State though it "has never been officially adopted by law". It is also known as the Green Tree State, which appears on its licence plates. It was also known as Chinook State.

West Virginia is usually known, including on licence plates, as the Mountain State. The shape of the state also gave West Virginia The Panhandle State.

Wisconsin is the Badger State a name derived from early lead miners who worked at the Illinois Galena lead mines in the 1830s. The miners from Wisconsin did not live in houses, but in caves in the hillside that looked like badger burrows. The state is sometimes nicknamed the Dairy State and America's Dairyland which is how it appears on licence plates.

The first grant of suffrage in the United States was made in Wyoming in 1869, and for that reason it became known as the Suffrage State or the Equality State. The state's symbol is a cowboy on a bucking bronco and some calling it the Cowboy State. Wyoming's licence plates say, Like No Place on Earth.

By the way, the toy manufacturer Melissa & Doug makes a travel license plate game but below is a link to a simple printout that you can give your kids on the next road trip you undertake.


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