If you’re taking a summer road trip–or just a drive to the grocery store–allow a few moments to savor our country’s most ubiquitous civics lesson: the automobile license plate. Every time we hit the highway, we move along surrounded by this everyday expression of American federalism. We are a nation of states, and so: 50 states, 50 different license plates (plus even more, counting speciality versions).
Each is a singular expression of state personality in 72 square inches of aluminum. Some, like New Hampshire’s green-and-white composition, proclaim a philosophy. General John Stark, a Revolutionary War hero of the Granite State, died in 1822, but his rallying cry for independence, “Live free or die,” lives on, bolted to the backs of Subarus and pickups. Wyoming’s silhouetted bucking horse and rider wordlessly evokes frontier spirit and also pays homage to a World War I National Guard unit that used the insignia.
Luke Hayman, partner at famed design studio Pentagram, frowns on overly decorated plates and says his favorite is the “refreshingly minimal” black-and-white motif of Texas, with its simple Lone Star. (“The advantage of this neutral palette is how well it pairs with any color you choose for your Tesla,” he jokes.) But no matter your taste, the spectrum of this mobile medley is ultimately the point. Some state designs are austere; others are fun or goofy or charming. All are distinctive, and all are American.
This appears in the July 11, 2016 issue of TIME.
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