Editor's note: Deseret Morning News artist John Clark, a license-plate collector himself, designed Utah's "Life Elevated" ski-themed plate, which was approved by the Legislature earlier this year.

Utah's newest standard-issue license plate is illustrative of the state's scenic diversity. It features a skiing scene with a representation of petroglyphs along the top. And it is the first time that reproductions of photographs have been used on Utah plates, giving them a unique graphic status in the history of Utah plates.

Utah license-plate design has a colorful past, influenced by many varied interests.

Advertising the state on a license plate, for example, began early on. When Utah first started registering automobiles on May 11, 1909, only a number followed by the letter "U" appeared on plates.

But members of the Salt Lake Commercial Club felt early Utah license plates were bland and requested the state spruce up its plates to help promote tourism. In 1923, red plates that conjured visions of red-rock deserts were introduced. The plate also spelled out the entire state name — a subtle update, but certainly more descriptive.

In 1941, H.J. Plumhof, a member of the newly formed Department of Publicity and Industrial Development, had an idea to place a slogan on Utah's license plates. Beginning in 1942, the slogan "Center Scenic America," which had been used by the Utah State Automobile Association and the Salt Lake Commercial Club since the 1920s, announced Utah's scenic position.

In the fall of 1945, the State Tax Commission proposed removing advertising from Utah's license plates for 1946, suggesting that the additional wording made the plate hard for law enforcement to read. When the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce protested, the commission said the design didn't present a "particular hazard," so the slogan stayed. Utah would remain one of six states nationwide to have a slogan on its plate.

The commission also announced a special plate would be designed for 1947 to commemorate the centennial of the Mormon pioneers' arrival in the Salt Lake Valley. The phrase "This Is the Place" was incorporated into the design. The slogan was among Utah's most popular.

In 1948, following the centennial celebration, a new slogan was needed. Rulon S. Howells, from the Department of Publicity and Industrial Development, offered a suggestion: How about "The Friendly State?"

The department had developed the slogan for its own tourism campaign. The phrase appeared on brochures, advertising signs and license plates. Traffic-safety groups again raised objections about slogans, and this time they were supported by the public.

Many Utahns felt "The Friendly State" was too boastful. As preparations were made for 1949's batch of plates, Howells pleaded to keep the slogan. According to an article in the Deseret News, tax commissioner Milton Twitchell expressed the view that "the state shouldn't make a billboard out of its license plates." Twitchell thought the friendly-state motto would be a "slogan to end all slogans."

His point of view prevailed and the motto didn't appear on 1949 plates.

Fast forward to 1959, when Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce officials looked back 17 years in the search for a new slogan. "Let's say it: 'Center of Scenic America,"' read a headline in the Feb. 23, 1959, Deseret News. "Such a catchy and meaningful slogan, displayed so amply and conspicuously, would advertise our parks and playgrounds not only here at home but all over the United States and Canada," the chamber commented in the article.

D. James Cannon, director of the Utah Tourist and Publicity Council at the time, chimed in with the phrase "Utah Unique." But Gov. George D. Clyde said no, offering, however, to make the word "Utah" bigger.

Other people would come forward with new slogans in the years that followed, including Stanley Nelson, who served on the State Board of Corrections. He asked, "How about 'Ski Utah'?" In 1969, Salt Lake Tribune columnist Dan Valentine referenced a story that had appeared in another publication that called Utah's plates among the worst-looking in the nation. With concern for aesthetics, readers of Valentine's column suggested slogans such as "Greatest Snow on Earth" and "The Different World of Utah."

When state Rep. S. Garth Jones from Cedar City proposed adding a slogan and some color to Utah's drab, black-and-white license plates in January 1977, he found a willing audience in his fellow legislators.

Once the bill passed in early February of that year, a contest was held to produce another new license plate slogan. The winning entry, "Best of the West," from Mrs. Kenneth Jenkins of Salt Lake City, was one of 13,251 submitted. She won a $1,000 Utah vacation for her efforts.

Just when the pieces were falling into place, an oversight put the brakes on the project. The license-plate plant at the Utah State Prison wasn't equipped to produce plates with graphics. No money was appropriated to cover costs involved in the more modern process, either. The project was further delayed when some Utahns complained that the slogan was too boastful.

"I don't think we could pick a slogan that everyone agrees with," tax commissioner Vernon L. Holman said at the time. "BeeUTAHful," and "uAUTOcUTAH" were kicked around as alternatives, neither of which met with much favor.

Exhausted by looking for the right slogan, the tax commission gave up on the graphic plates, just as the plant at the prison gained the capacity to make them in the fall of 1982.

In 1985, Raymond Edvalson, a teacher at East High School, had the students in his commercial-art class design license plates promoting Utah and skiing. "I wanted to give my students the opportunity to do something for their community," Edvalson said in a recent interview with the Deseret Morning News.

Several designs were submitted to then-Gov. Norm Bangerter, and the Utah Legislature passed a bill to create the familiar "Ski Utah" license plates in the fall of 1985. Government officials felt that the new plates would help promote a bid for the Winter Olympics.

Since the arrival of ski-themed license plates, myriad slogans have appeared on specialty plates promoting everything from Boy Scouts to homeless pets.

As we approach 2009 — the centennial of licensing automobiles in the state — Utah's new plates, which were designed with input from various Utah agencies, from the Office of Tourism to the Division of Motor Vehicles, will rise to contemplate what it means to live "Life Elevated." The plates will be available later this year or perhaps early next year.

Sources: Salt Lake Telegram, Eureka Reporter, Kane County Standard, Deseret News, Salt Lake Tribune, Utah State Archives.


E-mail: johnc@desnews.com