Tales from the Back Bumper: A Century of BC Licence Plates (2013)

Tales from the Back Bumper by Christopher GarrishWhat is it about licence plates that is so fascinating? I still play the childhood game of checking off as many provinces and states whenever we are on a road trip. (Tip – go to national parks and scour the parking lots.) Garrish’s interest has been lifelong, but the book is a project that emerged from his tendency to take a break from his master’s thesis research to explore licence plates in various archives. He launched a website and that led to the book, which includes a foreword by former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell, whose government provided the pretty veteran’s plates and the controversial Olympic plates preceding the 2010 Olympic Games hosted in Vancouver. The book opens with a history of licence plates, which go back well before the development of the automobile, to the late 17th century Europe when cabbies for hire were required to affix I.D. plates and pay a fee to governments. It wasn’t until well into the 20th century that government-issued plates become the norm in B.C. – prior to that car owners made their own. Can you imagine! While aluminum is the material of choice today, past plates have been made of copper, wood, leather, plastic, and even cardboard. And for those of us who remember the boring old two-colour plates with no artwork, we can thank South Dakota for being the first jurisdiction to include a third colour and graphics – a screened line-drawing of Mount Rushmore. See how interesting this is? Garrish moves along through the history of licence plate production for B.C. motorists (the first box of government-issue metal plates was so heavy it crashed through the floor of the provincial police department in Victoria) to vanity plates and the politics of plate design and logos, including B.C.’s “The Best Place on Earth” and Quebec’s “Je Me Souviens.” He provides a chapter on our province’s road-building programs, including municipal licensing fees to help fill local coffers. While the book is ostensibly about the history of plates in B.C., Garrish includes information about plates around the world, as these often influenced the policies and processes in our own province. The book is loaded with pictures, and fact boxes on everything from temporary plates to plates for vintage car owners and ham radio operators. He concludes with a short glossary, extensive endnotes, and a sizeable index. The design and production are lovely throughout the book. Readers will linger over the frontispiece, a full-colour plate showing the changing design of B.C. plates from 1913 to today, though the newly issued B.C. Parks series had not yet been released. This is a fascinating read, and I’ll be getting a copy for our own B.C. history collection.
There’s not much discussion online about this book, so instead of a link to Goodreads, I’m providing a link to Garrish’s website that predated the book’s publication: http://www.bcpl8s.ca/


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