Why You Can't Find a License Plate With Your Kid's Name On It
San Francisco's Chinatown is a bonanza of classic tourist souvenirs. Refrigerator magnets reading "Greetings from SF"? Check. Flatten a penny and imprint the Golden Gate Bridge on it? Check. Miniature California license plates with children's names on them? Check...kind of.
On a recent family trip I saw racks and racks of the little vanity plates, but something struck me funny. None of them featured the current California plate design, the red script and blue letters on white that the state has issued for the past 18 years. Nor did I find the design before that. Instead, I had my choice of 1970s-style yellow on blue and 1980s rising sun. (Refresh your memory of plate designs past here.)
Why are all the mini license plates so retro? It's not a matter of nostalgia. I'm confident that the souvenirs I saw were actually produced back when the plate designs were current. You can tell from the selection of names, suspended in time:
It seems that mini license license plate production halted a generation back. It may be that the product has lost its allure for modern kids, but I doubt it. I suspect that what's changed is the business proposition of fabricating metal trinkets molded into individual names.
Back in 1970 when the Californa blue and yellows were first issued, stamping out plates in just 10 names would cover more than a quarter of all American boys. Today the top 10 names account for only one boy in twelve. That makes manufacturing enough plates to lure in a broad swath of the public an impractical business. What's more, name trends change faster today, increasing the risk of getting stuck with a lot of worthless merchandise.
Is the era of the name trinket doomed to end? Not so fast. In another part of San Francisco, another souvenir vendor offered a glimpse of a personalized trinket future -- a future that harkens back to the past. This vendor solved the name diversity problem with old-fashioned hand craftmanship. Take a look at these options for just the begining of the "M" section:
Those bracelets were hand made by the vendor, a city-licensed street artist. If you don't find your particular name spelling in her extensive inventory, she'll create a custom version for you on the spot.
It's the perfect old-school solution to a newfangled name problem. If only you could weave a license plate.