The Stuff of Family Vacation Legend

By 1903, Henry Lee Higginson, most well known for founding the Boston Symphony Orchestra, had grown sick and tired of crazy drivers flying down the streets near his summer home in their newfangled automobiles, completely ignoring the posted speed limit of 15 miles per hour.

Never shy about contacting his representatives in government to register a complaint or share unsolicited advice, Higginson submitted a petition entitled, “A Petition Relative to Licensing Automobiles and Those Operating the Same.” The way he saw it, there was no way to hold those dadgum irresponsible drivers accountable unless there was a reliable way to identify them.

Henry Lee Higginson, who probably also wanted those dadgum teenagers to get off his lawn.  John Singer Sargent [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Henry Lee Higginson, who probably also wanted those dadgum teenagers to get off his lawn. John Singer Sargent [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
His suggestion was that all automobiles should be required to be registered with an accompanying fee of two dollars each year. Higginson’s very concern was already being discussed by Massachusetts lawmakers, particularly by the newly formed Automobile Department, which included Higginson’s nephew Fredrick Tudor.

Apparently if you’re a grumpy old man concerned citizen, it’s good to be a connected one because that same year, the first state-issued license plate in the entire United States was issued, a steel plate coated in porcelain with a cobalt blue background and raised white number. Across the top were the words “MASS. AUTOMOBILE REGISTER,” because even the people who live there can’t spell Massachusetts.

Massachusetts wasn’t the first state to require license plates. New York had been using them for a couple years already, but only required that drivers make an identification tag themselves, which meant that everyone just ended up with the same vanity plate: “BY OFFCER.”

So when Fredrick Tudor rolled off the lot with his brand new state issued-license plate, reading “1,” it was kind of a big deal. Other states, including New York, borrowed the idea and soon it was nearly impossible for dadgum crazy drivers to rip through Henry Higginson’s neighborhood at 16 miles per hour with impunity.

At last the state could make a few bucks by issuing plates that said “C U L8R” and could more easily identify vehicles that needed to be identified. But we all know the real reason we have state-issued license plates on our vehicles is because families heading out in the old Subaru for summer fun and togetherness need some way to pass the time. They need the license plate game.

It’s not much of a game, really, just writing down every state represented on the road through the seemingly endless hours of travel. But let me tell you, the excitement when everyone spots Alaska in the middle of Georgia is the stuff of family vacation legend.

I suppose it does make more sense to run into Tinkerbell in Orlando than at Yellowstone.  photo credit: TKRBELL (Tinkerbell) via photopin (license)
I suppose it does make more sense to run into Tinkerbell in Orlando than at Yellowstone. photo credit: TKRBELL (Tinkerbell) via photopin (license)

I didn’t post to this blog last week because my family and I were on just such a trip. A couple days after the kids got out of school, we took off on the fourteen or so hour drive for Universal Studios in Florida. It was a fantastic trip, full of movie magic and all things Harry Potter, a great way to kick off the summer. And we saw a fair number of plates along the way, an awesome 44 out of 50 states, along with a good portion of Canadian provinces.

Of course when we drove out west last summer to Yellowstone, we saw all but one state (apparently the good people of Delaware don’t get out much), but I still think we did fairly well. We didn’t see Vermont, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Dakota, or Utah. If you’re from any of those states, you’re missing a great trip. We also failed to find Hawaii, but I suppose that would be a tough drive (even tougher than Yellowstone, apparently).

We saw plenty of Massachusetts on this trip, but not plate #1. It is still an active registration, held by a relative of Fredrick Tudor, and I suppose Henry Lee Higginson, too. Whoever has it now, I sure hope he obeys posted speed limits.

It would take a long time to get from Massachusetts to Florida at that pace.   photo credit: 15front.jpg via photopin (license)
It would take a long time to get from Massachusetts to Florida at that pace. photo credit: 15front.jpg via photopin (license)

As a side note, I love writing for this blog and I am always delighted when people stop by, but I am first and foremost a mom. Now that the summer is in full swing around here, I am going to do my best to keep up posting every week, but I can’t promise I won’t miss one from time to time. I do still have six state license plates to find, including Hawaii. I think I may need to head to the source.

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7 thoughts on “The Stuff of Family Vacation Legend

  1. Get thee to Hawaii – and then pop down to New Zealand while you’re at it. (You can borrow my car for the week – it’s expensively licensed thanks probably to Henry Lee Higginson). And, yes, I can spell Masachusetts… Massachusets… Massachewsetts.. Mass.

  2. Yes, the games we’d dream up to keep our kids occupied! Fun for all of us–until an argument erupted over “who saw it first,” or “that doesn’t count.” I remember the alphabet game, and there were several about animals.
    Those were the days. At the time, they sometimes seemed to drag on forever. Now, I wish they had. Sometimes. So quickly, our offspring are no longer children but teenagers–a period which lasts on average, about 40 years. Better enjoy these rambunctious years, Sarah.

    1. Yes, the alphabet game can get intense! I do sometimes find myself wishing away these years, less so now that they’re not babies, but I do also try to revel in the fun moments. I know they’ll go by fast. They’re already going by fast!

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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