There’s a lady in my apartment building whose license plate says EET CAKE. Every time I see it, I smile — who wouldn’t? But I got to thinking about why she’d chosen it. I’d always associated vanity plates with a certain type of person; you know, the kind that gets I LV DSNY for their sweet 16.
In this case, there was a deeper meaning, explains EET CAKE owner Dale Webdale, a San Francisco-based retired software engineer. She’s owned the plates since 1980 and says they serve as a reminder of the folly of gentrification (after all, “let them eat cake,” was Marie Antoinette’s infamous response upon hearing her starving subjects lacked bread). This is painfully relevant in the Bay Area, a region with huge income disparities.
I started noticing more and more vanity plates in the wild — in the Bay Area, I’ve spotted SELF DRVN and HTTPS — and I got curious. Vanities act as a kind of IRL information superhighway, simultaneously trivial and telling. They’re essentially Twitter handles on the back bumper, but they predate social media by decades.
The emergence of license plates dates back to 1901, when New York governor Benjamin Odell Jr. passed a bill requiring auto owners to register with the state. Fast forward to 2019, with an estimated 281million registered cars in America driving an average of 13,000 miles a year. Around 5% of those cars have vanity plates, based on data pulled from multiple DMVs, research reports, and FOIAs. Rules about what’s permitted on a vanity vary state by state, but most adhere to no sex, no drugs, and no hate speech guidelines. In California, the DMV values “good taste and decency,” says spokesperson Artemia Armento. But that doesn’t stop people from trying to sneak things by.
“We get a lot of requests to have 69 on it,” Armento admits. To prevent this, the DMV proactively warns applicants that no configuration whatsoever that includes the number 69 is allowed, barring proof that your car was issued that year.
The filter hasn’t deterred people from getting custom plates, of course: As of December 2018, California had 1,155,528 vanities in the…