The Long Line for Car Registration

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, March 13, 2020.

March brings the promise, if not the reality, of Spring. It’s an unsettling time of year – the weather is either beautiful or vile. In many New Hampshire towns, March is still the time of year when warrant articles and local elections take place. Before 1977, it was also the month to register your car.

Automobiles were still new in 1905 when it became apparent that these crazy new things were going to need some kind of regulation. The first registration tag (from here on out called “license plate,” although the term wasn’t used until 1924), issued in New Hampshire had the number “2” on it. Governor McLane reserved number “1” for himself. Registration back then was $3.00. Surprising everyone, cars weren’t a fad and registrations increased. In 1909, the registration fee was increased to $10.00 and had to be paid annually. Even this didn’t deter enthusiastic drivers.

License plates were manufactured out of state until 1933, usually by the Baltimore Enamel and Novelty Company. Made of thick steel with enameled numerals, they had some heft. After that, production was moved to the New Hampshire Prison in Concord. An attempt to promote the state by adding an image of the old man on the mountain in 1924 had was not successful – the profile looked too much like the number “9” and confused police officers. Later, the word “scenic” or “photo scenic” was written across the top of the plate to lure tourists. “Live Free or Die” – the state motto – was added in 1971, and almost immediately challenged by people who thought it was just a bit too…well, dark. A successful U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowed vehicle owners who were uncomfortable with the motto to cover it. The old man of the mountain returned to the plates in 1999, once it became possible to add an image to the background. Four years later, in 2003, the rock formation itself slid from the mountain making the logo into a ghostly apparition.

In order to keep track of who had paid the annual registration, the colors of the plates alternated between green on white and white on green. But some years, the State didn’t bother to change the color pattern, throwing the entire system out of whack. It wasn’t until 1912 that dated plates were pressed. From that time, with only a few interruptions for wartime, plates were replaced annually. Steel shortages during World War I found the State of New Hampshire using pressboard plates temporarily. They held up remarkably well. During World War II, cars were only required to have a back plate and the years were covered with an updated strip of metal.

The annual renewal of car registrations moved from January 1st to April 1st in 1939 – meaning that everyone had to renew in March. If you wanted to keep the same number plate, there was a deadline in February to meet.

After World War II, license plate numbers began to have county designations on them – Rockingham County plates with RA – RZ at first and later KA – KZ after 1955, and PA – PZ after 1968. These plates continued until 1978. After that, combinations of letters and numbers with the occasional low-numbered legacy plate and vanity plates ruled.

The plates themselves changed in 1964, when steel was replaced with lightweight aluminum. Registration was still done annually during the month of March. As more and more families owned cars – and sometimes two cars – one month of registration seem to create quite a bottleneck. Sure, there were people like Bob Schur, who first started registering his car in 1968, who heeded his mother’s good advice to ‘just get it done early.’ He never waited around until the last possible day. He remembers standing in front of Styles drugstore on Water Street with a co-worker laughing at the long lines of people waiting to register their cars in the final days of March. The line, he recalls, ran all the way from the town office to Center Street. Sometimes registration was moved to other locations to ease up the congestion. In 1962, you could pick up your plates at the Rockingham National Bank. The Exeter Shopping Center on Portsmouth Avenue was used in 1971. Photos from that day show a long line snaking through the parking lot. “Over 5,000 registrations were handled in the last three days of the month. Mrs. Rose Twombly, Epping, clerk was assisted by Miss Elaine Vachone and Mrs. Mary Moulton,” reported the Exeter News-Letter. Locations varied during the month as the State tried to register vehicles by county. If you missed one of the registration days in Exeter, you might be able to get plates in Portsmouth. But the lines proved that the system was unwieldy.

The State changed the system in 1977, going to a staggered registration based on birth month. The change-over period was confusing for a while. “ATTENTION! CAR OWNERS,” shouted an ad from the Department of Safety Division of Motor Vehicles in February 1976, “ALL 1975 MOTOR VEHICLE REGISTRATIONS EXPIRE MARCH 31, 1976 REGARDLESS OF YOUR BIRTHDATE. If you need your vehicle April 1, it MUST be re-registered before that date. Avoid a ticket for operating an unregistered vehicle by registering now. DON’T DELAY. DO IT NOW!” Of course, people waited. There’s still a pile up at the end of every month. That’s just how people roll. Registration became even easier when license plates no longer had the year embossed on them and registration became as simple as a sticker. Gone were the days of prying off a metal plate every Spring. If your grandpa still has a garage decorated with old license plates – that’s why. Once upon a time, registering the car in New Hampshire was an all-day event.

Barbara Rimkunas is curator of the Exeter Historical Society. Support the Exeter Historical Society by becoming a member! Join online at:

Image: “Not a run on the bank nor a line of unemployed getting a free meal in the thirties. The group photographed at 10 a.m. last Thursday (March 29th) is taking advantage of the opportunity to procure 1962 auto registration plates at the Rockingham National Bank. A total of 1,144 were serviced from 8:30 a.m. until 2:45 p.m. Those who got in line too late were able to procure the plates in Portsmouth on Friday.”


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