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North Carolina's unkillable 41-year-old license plate
"First in Flight" has been this state's standard license plate since 1982. It replaced a controversial slogan and came from a different era, when it was okay to clown on the Wright Brothers.
First off, if you’re wondering, the font on the bottom of every North Carolina license plate made since 1982 is “Advertisers Gothic.” It’s much older than it seems: According to typography nerds, the font itself was created by Robert Wiebking in Chicago way back in 1917 for, you guessed it, advertisements. “This font refuses to be a wimp,” says one description. “Use it boldly.”
The font seemed to gain a lot of popularity in the 1970s, especially among book cover and record album designers. It was used in the titles of the TV show “Starsky & Hutch,” as well as “The Streets of San Francisco,” which starred Karl Malden and a young Michael Douglas.
It’s also been the font on the cover of the board game “Sorry!” since 1972. As in, I’m sorry that once you see this font on the cover of this game, you won’t be able to unsee it.
Anyhow, if you live in North Carolina, you are very familiar with the Advertisers Gothic font, even if you couldn’t name it before now. In fact, if you close your eyes, you can probably visualize the rest of the license plate. A blue combination of large letters and numbers. “First In Flight” in red at the top. Sea oats and the Wright flyer in pale blue. It feels timeless. Or maybe it just seems that way because, in the 41 years since its release, nobody’s come up with a better or more popular idea. About 60% of North Carolinians go with the original “First In Flight” design.
Of course, it wasn’t always like this. The first time North Carolina tried to add a slogan on its license plate in the 1970s, several people were prosecuted for covering it up with tape. Even “First in Flight” had haters. And then, it became a bit of a rallying cry, thanks to a rival state that tried to take what was rightfully ours. No, not Ohio. Connecticut.
The First Slogan and Rolls of Tape
As a state, North Carolina’s been issuing license places for 110 years now. The first ones were printed on porcelain. Later on, they were made from steel, and you had to get a whole new plate every year. They once had to be on the front and back of cars and trucks, although that rule went away in 1951 to save on metal in the face of a potential shortage. A few plates had a crude version of what sort of resembles as the Tar Heels’ athletic logo, with an interlocked “NC.” The colors were different every year.
For a while during the 1950s and ‘60s, the state stamped “Drive Safely” on its plates. But in the 1970s, the state decided to shake things up. For one thing, they’d decided to issue new plates every five years so people wouldn’t have to make annual trips to the DMV. They’d make them from aluminum instead of steel, which rusted. The plan would save the state $2 million in materials over the first half-decade.
And, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence’s signing in 1775, the DMV added a slogan, “First in Freedom,” thanks to the urging of the Exchange Clubs of North Carolina. “[It] will be a constant public reminder of the fundamental principles, ideals, spirit, courage, and devotion North Carolina has contributed to the freedom, heritage and founding of this great nation,” the chairman of the Raleigh Exchange Club’s Bicentennial Committee said in 1974.
Not everyone took it that way. A Black man from Raleigh, Walter Williams III, was one of many people who taped over the phrase when it showed up on their license plates in 1975. State troopers threatened to arrest anyone who did so, although only three people were charged, according to newspaper reports. The tape led Williams and at least one other Black man to have confrontations with police. According to the Associated Press:
A white Smithfield police officer stopped [Williams] and asked about the tape. After Williams explained that he didn’t believe North Carolina offers equal freedom for blacks, the officer gave him the ticket and added the speeding charge, Williams said.
Williams said that while he was explaining why he taped the slogan, “He told me if I didn’t like the slogan I ought to move.” The officer was laughing as he drove away, Williams said.
Williams was convicted of speeding and of defacing the license plate, even though the state attorney general urged prosecutors to drop those cases because of First Amendment questions. Well, that and the fact that the ACLU was coming to the defense of tape-wielding drivers. “I suppose there’s some irony in saying that the state is first in freedom and arresting anyone who contests that notion,” Walter Dellinger, a Duke University law professor, told the AP in March 1975.
State judges later ruled that covering only the slogan didn’t violate the law, and a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1976, Wooley v. Maynard, affirmed that states couldn’t require people to display slogans on license plates, since it effectively made them “use their private property as a 'mobile billboard' for the State's ideological message.” Hence, taping over the slogan was, and is, perfectly legal.
Activists used the plates to bring up another irony: The fact that “First in Freedom” North Carolina had more people waiting on death row than any other state, most of them Black. By 1977, a beleaguered motor vehicles commissioner asked the General Assembly to drop the slogan. “There was so much controversy,” he said. But in 1978, when the state officially dropped “First in Freedom,” the DOT said the controversy had nothing to do with it. The slogan had merely “outlived its usefulness,” according to a state spokeswoman. State leaders weren’t pressured into their decision, she said, which was made in April of that year but wasn’t announced until October. Why the delay? “I guess they just didn’t think it was that important,” the spokeswoman said.
North Carolinians Once Said The Wright Brothers were Overrated
After that, state license plates didn’t have any slogan again until the early 80s, when a powerful state senator from Wayne County proposed something new. “Since the beginning of time, man has looked to the skies and wanted to fly,” said President Pro Tem Henson Barnes. “Here in North Carolina, this is where it happened.” The original proposed design showed a yellow Wright flyer instead of blue. Immediately, someone spotted an error: The original plane depicted was the Wright’s 1909 flyer, which was only flown in Ohio, instead of the 1903 plane that flew at Kitty Hawk. The mistake was quickly fixed.
This time people didn’t get angry. They got snarky. “Wouldn’t ‘Old North State’ be appropriate instead of honoring an event belonging to sons of Ohio?” one man wrote to the News & Observer. “It was only due to our topography and climate that the first flight happened to occur in North Carolina,” wrote another. “Surely we can find something more appropriate to boast about.” There was a surprising amount of Wright Brothers shade that came out. Newspaper columnists who wrote about “First in Flight” were surprised the amount of letters they received. Others thought the slogan might make it seem like people were willing to flee the state. Still others thought county names should go on the tags instead of a slogan.
Maybe the best argument against it came from Dr. Ed North, who argued that the whole slogan was moot because airplanes were a hoax. “I think it’s a great idea,” said North, president of the Man Will Never Fly Memorial Society. “As long as they put quotes around it and a question mark after it.”
North proposed a new slogan: “Go Away and Leave Us Alone.”
It didn’t work. The General Assembly approved the design and slogan, and started phasing the new, more colorful plates into use in 1982. Governor James Hunt got the first one, with a big “1” on it.
“Those new North Carolina plates are just about the most attractive of any states observed,” the Rocky Mount Evening Telegram wrote in an editorial. The Automobile License Plate Collector Association named it the best plate of 1982.
Ohioans got pissed. Not right away, though, because apparently news travels slowly. In 1987, a Dayton Daily News editor thought that North Carolina was “first in pretension,” but that the “pretenders in the Tar Heel state are better left alone.” He was worried that others might try to steal Ohio and North Carolina’s aviation valor (In 1986, a historian claimed at the first flight actually happened in Connecticut in 1901). Ohio wouldn’t put “Birthplace of Aviation,” on their license plates until 1997. Much later, they’d depict the Wright flyer flying, eh, backwards.
Over time, people stopped grumbling about the fact that the achievement of two Dayton bros was given the most valuable real estate on the state’s most visible piece of public art. Even the dueling “First in Flight” vs. “Birthplace of Aviation” slogans were seen as a truce of sorts, mostly to counter Connecticut’s continuing claim that some dude named Gustave Whitehead had flown in that state first. After that tiny little state honored Whitehead with a holiday in 2013, lawmakers from Ohio and North Carolina put aside their differences to make a statement that they felt like everyone could agree on. That statement, basically: Connecticut sucks. Nothing brings people together like a shared enemy.
Sure, Go Ahead, You Try To Get Rid Of This Thing
North Carolina’s plate isn’t the oldest design currently in use. Delaware’s tags have had the same look since 1959 (plates from as far back as 1942 can still be used as long as they have a current registration sticker). Colorado’s used a green Rocky Mountain design on its plates almost continuously since 1960. The District of Columbia and Minnesota have had the same basic layout since the late 1970s. The only change North Carolina made to its iconic “First in Flight” plates was to make the numbers red between 2007 and 2009, but the state changed back after people complained that they were too hard to read.
Today, more than 2 million plates a year are still made by inmates at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh. The only big thing that’s happened: Thanks to an aluminum shortage, some lawmakers have considered making the plates from plastic instead.
No matter the material, the design was never in doubt. In 2015, “First in Freedom” came back as an option, and in 2019, the state added an “In God We Trust” alternative. Both are available without having to pay extra. Even so, 6 in 10 people continue to choose the original 41 year old design by default. Maybe people love it. Maybe most of us don’t really care all that much about license plates.
(An aside: If you’ve seen standard-issue license plates that start with OBX and wondered where they come from, here’s your answer. In 1999, the license plate office in Manteo started issuing the OBX plates at the urging of Marc Basnight, the super powerful senator from the Outer Banks. He thought it might help as a marketing ploy. He arranged it so Andy Griffith, who lived in Manteo, ended up with an “OBX 3” plate. It worked. Today, “OBX” is on all sorts of Outer Banks merch, and since its inception, more than 121,000 OBX plates have been issued. That’s more than double the actual population of the Outer Banks. By the way, you don’t have to live in Dare County to get an OBX plate. You just have to show up, in person, at the Manteo license plate agency.)
It’s unclear who actually designed the plates back in the early ‘80s—the DOT checked for me, but couldn’t figure it out. And, even if you could come up with a better design today, I’d pity the fool who actually attempts to change it (see what happened when the New York Islanders tried to update their logo in the 1990s). Besides, you already have options to express yourself: There are nearly 200 styles of specialized and customized plates available now, from “I’d Rather Be Shaggin’” to (for a very short time) FART. Even so, the state’s never messed with one part of the plate. And so, to this day, every single plate still has “North Carolina” written on it in Advertisers Gothic. Just like “Starsky & Hutch,” it never goes out of style.