Too much information

The handsomest Connecticut license plates ever were the silver ones of the 1940s and ’50s.

They sported no motto, only “CONN.” The black numbers and letters were purposeful and legible. These sleek utilitarian beauties had an aura of modernity – the plates were made of steel-saving aluminum – some scraps left over from building the Arsenal of Democracy, fabricated from discarded Pratt & Whitney engine cowlings, perhaps. That silver-and-black license plate was elegant – the epitome of Yankee industrial design.

The silver tag added a rakish touch to almost any car, even my parson grandfather’s practically chrome-less black Buick. My grandparents lived in a gloomy Victorian manse behind the Presbyterian church in Greenwich.

My grandmother wore sensible lace-up shoes and maroon dresses, and played the organ at the church. My grandfather was a very tall, white-haired gentleman whose only concession to fashion was a rimless pince-nez. Yet, when the Reverend and Mrs. Morgan rolled out in the Buick, the silver license plate sparkled like an Art Deco stickpin on the frock of a Puritan divine.

Since that zenith of automotive tag design, the Connecticut license plate has slowly descended into mediocrity. To its credit, Connecticut long kept it simple, resisting crowding the plate with jingoistic phrases and advertisements, as well as pitches from 3M to adopt a reflective surface. For decades the tag was a no-nonsense blue with white letters.

Then the Constitution State motto appeared. This is a somewhat mysterious declaration, as every state has such a document, and only a few dweebs who paid attention in history class understand the 18th Century reference. (What other legends might have been considered? “Famous Tobacco”? “Home of Mark Twain”? “Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods: Two Casinos, Many Losers”?)

In the Land of Steady Habits, change sneaks in slowly, and the Constitution State plate quietly got a map in the upper left-hand corner – Ohio, New York, New Jersey, and Texas put theirs in the center. So illiterate travelers or those unfamiliar with the state’s constitution-writing abilities might recognize the plate by recalling Connecticut’s shape from a blob-like inch-and-a-half-sized map. And now, thanks to computer graphics, the newest stamp-sized map is much more detailed, complete with an indented shoreline (this is visible only at very close range, as when a car runs you over).

New graphics have opened up plate design to all sorts of color and pictorial effects. While Connecticut’s approach has been characteristically cautious – the more detailed wee map and the harder-to-read flat printing of the state name and motto – other states have engaged in a riot of landscapes, sunsets, and historical tableaux.

Instead of the old flat colors, it is now possible to have a rainbow of tints, sometimes a peacock-like show of the complete spectrum. Connecticut, however, curiously chose a bland and less-than-attention-grabbing fade from aqua to 3M reflective white. It is almost as if each plate had been dipped upside down in a toilet filled with those blue flush cleaners. What kind of advertisement is this for the state? What does it say about Connecticut?

The reflectorized graphic plate also has opened up a Pandora’s box of specialty plates. Connecticut’s 60 offerings are mostly logos grafted onto the regular tag: the Elks, the Fraternal Order of Police, firefighters, colleges and universities (you can get a UConn Husky, naturally, but also a Penn State Nittany Lion), even conservation organizations wanting to preserve bobcats, eagles, ducks, and Long Island Sound. While these extra-cost options may raise money for good causes, Connecticut drivers whose tastes run to tacky must feel cheated when they see plates from other states that depict naval battles, national parks and entire ecosystems.

All of the manatees, tranquil lakes, battleships, and charitable-group paraphernalia on today’s auto tags make them increasingly hard to read, forcing the question: What is the purpose of a license plate? Is it to identify the vehicle in case of an accident or theft? Is it a governmental device for raising revenue? Is free advertising for the state nonchalantly posted by thousands of roving Connecticut ambassadors? Or is a license plate merely a decorative flourish?

Just as cars have become larger, hungrier and uglier, license plates have become ever more crowded, kitschier, and increasingly divorced from their original function. Instead of trying to compete with “Famous Potatoes” (Idaho), “The Land of Enchantment” (New Mexico) and the “Birthplace of Aviation” (Ohio), let the state’s very name be its own badge of honor.

It is time for Connecticut to strike a blow for good graphic design _ maybe even start a nationwide trend of returning to distinguished-looking plates. The ideal should not be the bloated gas-guzzling sport-ute with an ironic “Save the Wilderness plate.” Let it be my grandfather’s basic black sedan with the classy silver license plate, with plain black letters and simply the legend “Connecticut.”

(William Morgan is an architectural historian.)