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The Massachusetts Codfish License Plate Fiasco of 1928

A 1928 Massachusetts license plate with a bad omen!

1928 was a bad year for the Massachusetts codfish yield.  Whose fault was it?  The Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles', of course—or you might think so, to listen to some of the irate fishermen that year.

The problem started with the new license plate design.  At the time, it was common for states to issue brand new license plates every year, and Massachusetts was no exception.  The new plates for 1928 featured something revolutionary, too: it was the first time any state put a picture of anything on the plate.  Since Massachusetts was known for cod, the picture the RMV chose was, logically, a codfish.  It appeared at the bottom of the plate.  In the bottom left-hand corner was the year, 1928.  In the bottom right-hand corner was the state, written “Mass.”  And in the middle was the codfish—the first picture of anything that ever appeared on an American license plate.  That should make the fishermen happy, right?

Well, no.  Complaints started pouring in from irate fishermen who were not happy at all.  One problem was the codfish decal.  They didn’t like it because, as they complained, it looked more like a “giant guppy” than a codfish.  Worse, it was facing away from the name of the state, suggesting that the codfish were leaving Massachusetts!  This could have been a strange kind of modern superstition.  More likely it stemmed from raw nerves on the part of the fishermen, whose nerves were already frayed because the codfish yield had been down all decade, and this probably just set them off.  

The 1929 Massachusetts license plate: there, is that better?
Whatever the reason, this was a problem for the RMV, and they took action.  For the 1929 license plates, the design was updated.  This time, the codfish was represented in more detail, so it looked more like a real fish.  And instead of swimming away from “Mass.”, it was swimming toward it.  Did it help the codfish yield?  Not at all.  1928 and 1929 weren’t good years for cod fisheries, but the 1920s and 1930s generally weren’t.  But the RMV learned its lesson: the 1930 Massachusetts license plates had no fish on them at all!

There’s no record of how the fish felt about the license plates, but then, fish don’t drive.