Granite Staters Celebrate Their Vanity Plates
Think you see far more vanity license plates in New Hampshire than in other states? It’s not your imagination.
Whether you are stuck in traffic or strolling through a supermarket parking lot, you are far more likely to see vanity plates – also known as personalized license plates – in the Granite State than anywhere else in New England. According to the New Hampshire Department of Safety, 13% of motorists, or one out of every eight registered vehicles here, currently has a personalized plate. Per capita, that’s twice as common as Maine, and nearly 10 times as common as Massachusetts.
So for local drivers who like word games, that means an ongoing stream of entertainment. Vanity plates have their own unique language, a blend between the spelling rules of texting and the wordplay on old-school calculators. Because of space limitations, vowels are often deleted and certain numbers are interchangeable with letters. Zeros are switched with O’s. Ones are either I’s or L’s. Threes are backward E’s, fours can substitute for A’s, and fives can be S’s.
In addition, the numerals 2 (“to” or “too”) and 4 (“for”) offer one-character bridge words, while the numberal 8 enables shorthand for words rhyming with “ate,” such as weight (W8), state (ST8), great (GR8), and most appropriately, plate (PL8).
Every time Stephanie Smith hits the road, her Lexus delivers a serendipitous word puzzle to a brand new audience.
Next to a bumper sticker that reads “Andra” in green-white-and-red lettering, her New Hampshire license plate says “2-2BENE.” Are the double twos a reference to a ballet tutu, or perhaps to a significant life event that happened on February 2? Or maybe Smith is a human resource specialist reminding people to claim their benefits?
For her fellow motorists who don’t recognize the colors of the Italian flag or don’t speak Italian, the guessing game can last for hours. But for those familiar with the expression “Andrà tutto bene!” – an uplifting slogan that went viral during the pandemic – the smiles break out quickly.
“It means ‘Everything is going to be all right,’” says Smith, of Concord. “It was my way of bringing a bit of my Italy vacation back home to New Hampshire and a reminder, mostly to myself, to enjoy ‘la dolce vita,’ the sweet life!”
Because they cover such a wide range of personal tastes, cultural references and inside jokes, vanity plates need not be written in code to stump bystanders. Sid Ceaser, a pop culture junkie and portrait photographer based in Nashua, chose “SULACO,” the battle frigate from the 1986 sci-fi film “Aliens.” His wife Sara’s plate is “PEQUOD,” the boat from Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.”
Ceaser says he will occasionally meet a “movie nerd” who instantly recognizes his plate, but most strangers shrug when reading it. He adds that random encounters with literature buffs are equally rare, with most people assuming the Moby Dick whaling ship is a Native American reference.
“I’ve always thought it would be cool to have a guide book that you could leave in your glovebox that has all the vanity plates in a multistate area,” Ceaser says. “So that when you see a vanity and you are trying to decipher what it means, you can just go to the guide to fully understand the significance.”
Halloween decoration enthusiast Rich Heidt, a Newmarket resident known for his annual haunted cardboard tunnels that stretch up to 100 feet long, has an easier-to-guess vanity plate theme. His pickup truck sports “GR8PMKN,” a nod to the mythical “Peanuts” comic strip character who is supposed to appear in a pumpkin patch every October 31.
“My plate sparks the little kid in everyone,” he says. “I get to talk about Halloween all year long.”
Rules of Engagement: What Can’t You Say on a Plate?
Rules and fees for vanity license plates vary widely by state. The first step in obtaining a New Hampshire vanity plate is doing an online database search with the Division of Motor Vehicles to see if your desired name is available. Regular Old Man of the Mountain passenger vehicle plates allow for seven characters, while special conservation Moose plates are limited to six characters.
On top of regular city/town and state registration fees, New Hampshire vanity plate owners pay an additional $40 a year (plus a one-time $8 setup fee) for the privilege of customization. Not including Moose plates or other specialty plate costs, the state raised an extra $7.3 million this year in vanity fees.
But there are restrictions on language. The New Hampshire DMV does not allow references to any of the following subjects “in any language, whether read forward, backward, by mirror image or by phonetic spelling”:
- Intimate body parts or genitals
- Sexual or excretory acts or functions
- Words or terms of profanity or obscenity
- Illegal activities
- Drugs, drug culture or illegal intoxicants
- Gangs or
- Racial, ethnic, religious, gender or sexual orientation hatred or bigotry
These censorship rules are a sharp contrast to neighboring Maine, which up until very recently allowed obscenities on customized plates. Maine relaxed its editorial standards in 2015, still rejecting messages promoting hate or violence but welcoming virtually anything else, opening up a floodgate of f-bombs and crass sexual references framed by the state’s “Vacationland” nickname.
Backed by the Legislature, Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, a former executive director of the Maine ACLU, enacted license plate language standards similar to New Hampshire’s rules this past May. “The First Amendment protects your right to have any bumper sticker you want,” she declared in a public statement. “But it doesn’t force the state to issue official registration plates that subject children in our communities to obscenity or profanity.”
Measured against the Maine vulgarity, the infamous 2019 New Hampshire
“PB4WEGO” vanity plate controversy seems rather quaint. Citing the ban on references to “excretory acts,” the state DMV had recalled the plate from a Rochester mom, who chose the message as a funny reminder to her kids to go to the bathroom before getting in the car. Gov. Chris Sununu intervened, reversing the order, noting that “common sense prevailed.”
Vanity Plates are “a Window into Someone’s Soul”
As host of the PL8STORY podcast, New Yorker Trista Polo interviews license plate owners across the country, exploring the psychology behind their choices (New Hampshire motorists are featured in episodes #42 [Jacqueline from NH: KEPGOIN] and #43 [Steve Gamlin from NH: INSPYRE]). After more than 75 episodes, she’s concluded that “vanity” is not an accurate adjective to describe her favorite subculture.
“You have a limited number of letters and numbers and only one person can have it. So these plates typically have a pretty big meaning for people,” she says. “You think it’s just a license plate, but it turns out that it’s really a window into someone’s soul.”
Sticking with her spirituality theme, Polo hopes that conversations sparked by vanity plates can generate empathy between strangers.
“There’s a lot more road rage out there right now. There’s a lot of people who might cut you off or ride your tail if you’re going too slow. I understand it’s stressful in traffic, especially when you’re late and all that. But if we personally knew who was driving that car, we’d give them a break. We’d be a little kinder,” she says.
“So by getting to know the people behind the vanity plates, what their stories are, I am hoping we all can permeate some more kindness in the world,” Polo adds.
Vanity Plates in the spotlight
With more than 180,000 local vanity plates to appreciate, perhaps the idea of an official state guidebook is long overdue. To get things started, New Hampshire Magazine put the spotlight on six motorists and their backstories:
Owner: Cerise Bienvenue-Boston
Right after New England Patriots exile Tom Brady won his seventh Super Bowl ring with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2021 – the most championships won by any player in NFL history – most of us immediately thought about the New Hampshire Division of Motor Vehicles, right?
Well, at least two football fans did. Cerise Bienvenue-Boston, a behavior specialist for the Nashua School District, first tried to apply online for the “BRADY7X” vanity plate. But it was already taken. She settled for “BRADYX7.”
“My husband asked why don’t I just get ‘BRADY8X,’ but I said no because I am too superstitious,” Bienvenue-Boston says. “I wish [new Patriots quarterback] Mac Jones wins a million Super Bowls, but what Brady did for New England will never be matched. He’s untouchable.”
Originally from Londonderry, Bienvenue-Boston moved to Las Vegas when she was 30, met her future husband, Bobby Boston, and was married at Fenway Park in 2012. She says that people are incredulous when they first hear her last name is really the city that sparked her sports fandom. The couple moved to New Hampshire in 2019.
Surprisingly, Brady is actually Bienvenue-
Boston’s second favorite Boston athlete. Another family vehicle sports a “VARITEK” plate honoring former Red Sox All-Star catcher Jason Varitek, but the car was recently pulled off the road after an accident.
“Vanity plates are a reflection of who I am,” she says. “Anyone who knows me for five minutes knows I’m a sports fan and who I love and who I don’t.”
Owner: Kristin Readel
When Kristin Readel was invited to apply for the head librarian’s position at Marlborough’s Frost Free Library in 2017, she didn’t believe she was qualified.
She self-effacingly called herself an “accidental librarian,” starting out her career as a volunteer parent at the Antrim public library helping out with children’s programming. Most notably, she lacked a Master of Library Science (MLS) degree that is a common prerequisite for the job.
Turns out that her 15 years of programming experience was more important than a diploma, as Frost Free (named after founder Rufus Frost, not poet Robert) chose her over candidates with MLS degrees.
Readel’s “LBRYUN” vanity plate was a tongue-in-cheek 50th birthday present to herself to “stop apologizing” for her nontraditional path to the stacks.
“I wanted to own what I was doing, and on my 50th birthday, I felt I could be a little vain,” she jokes. “After high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I still kind of don’t know.”
Readel adds that she’s thrilled she’s stumbled across her “accidental” career.
“I love helping people discover new authors or series. Even the most simple things can make someone’s day,” she says. “Sometimes we’re the only social connection people have each day. That makes our role a sacred task.”
Owner: Elizabeth Eliza
In the late 1990s, when Elizabeth Eliza was a student at Nashua High School, she ripped out a magazine picture in art class and brought it home. “It was a photo of a Volkswagen bus, and I’ve been dreaming of owning one ever since,” says the homeschooling mom of three.
It took a lot of waiting, but two years ago, Eliza bought a bright-orange 1974 VW Westfalia Camper in Manchester. The man who owned it had the license plate “–CRUSH” and thinking that matched the “vehicle’s personality” perfectly, she secured the “CRUSH–” vanity name as the next
The nuance of the hyphen means there are currently at least three New Hampshire vehicles paying tribute to the iconic orange soda pop brand. Eliza carries cans of Crush soda (which actually comes in grape, strawberry, watermelon and pineapple too) in the bus as a fun photo prop, but confesses she rarely drinks the stuff. “I’m not really a fan of orange soda, I drink mostly Diet Coke and ginger ale,” she says.
But the bus and vanity plate were never intended as an advertising vehicle (Crush is owned by Dr. Pepper/Seven Up). Eliza says she intended the bus to infuse more adventure and experiential learning into her children’s homeschool lessons, but is reluctant to take it cross-country until some engine issues are resolved.
In the meantime, she often invites car enthusiasts to sit inside the bus on Fridays at the weekly Target Cruise Night in Nashua.
“Everywhere we go, CRUSH brings people together and makes them smile,” Eliza says. “I’d love to meet everyone
who previously drove this bus. If only she could talk!”
Owner: Heather Taylor
Marathoner Heather Taylor was a relative latecomer to the running world, waiting until age 39 to lace up a pair of sneakers in 2017. Her initial motivation was to maintain nearly 100 pounds of weight loss, but she says that exercise soon became something she did for fun.
“I fell in love with it,” recalls Taylor, who works in the business office of the N.H.Department of Corrections. “I never thought I would, considering that I absolutely hated running when I was younger. Running used to be something I was told to do. Now I do it on my own terms.
“Every finish line I’ve ever crossed, especially at the longer races, I’ve cried,” she adds. “Being a former smoker, I was actually shocked that I could do this!”
Taylor, a member of the local Millennial Running Club and the “She Runs This Town NH” women’s running club, has completed dozens of 5K races and three marathons: Chicago, Maine Coast, and New Hampshire’s Clarence DeMar, which stretches from Gilsum to Keene.
Her sneakers have also taken her to the Rocky Run “Italian Stallion Challenge” in Philadelphia, which involved a compulsory stride up the steps of the Philly Art Museum.
“I never thought I wanted a vanity plate until I had something to celebrate, I guess,” says Taylor. “I never had any hobbies until I became a runner. Funny thing, after I got the CRZYRNR plate, somebody thought it meant ‘crazy nurse.’”
Owner: Eoin Clark
Outside the brick mill headquarters of FIRST, the international school robotics organization founded in Manchester, you can usually find Eoin Clark’s alternative Batmobile.
“In the 1966 Batman TV series with Adam West and Burt Ward, they have the Batcopter, the Batboat, and the Batcycle, so I just naturally attached ‘Bat’ to the name of my Jeep,” the IT operations manager says. “I get a lot of compliments on it, usually when I’m sitting at the gas station filling up.”
Clark’s first exposure to the Caped Crusader was the campy TV series, followed by the “Super Friends” Saturday morning cartoon and “Scooby Doo Meets Batman and Robin.” He initially found Batman to be a likeable character, but he recalls not becoming a true diehard Batfan until reading the comic books, particularly “The Dark Knight Returns” by Frank Miller.
“Miller has such great insights about Batman’s morals and his mission,” he says. “The most compelling thing to me about Batman is that he’s not an alien or a mutant. He’s just a regular guy who’s rich, which granted could be considered a superpower. But with dedication to physical fitness and developing his mind to be a detective, the idea of Batman seems possible in real life. That’s what drew me to him.”
As for what draws Clark to vanity plates, it’s the opportunity to be unique.
“Once you choose a plate, no one else can have it but you,” he says. “I’m the only BATJEEP on the road and I love that.”
Owner: Stuart Rothberg
Accountant Stuart Rothberg will never forget the day that Hampton Beach swallowed his father’s wedding ring.
“When I was about 10, my dad was shaking out his towel and we all heard this ‘dink-dink-dink’ sound. His ring fell into the sand and there was a gentleman nearby with a metal detector who offered to help us find it,” he recalls. “He didn’t have any luck, but I thought his detector was the coolest thing. That moment stuck with me.”
Rothberg, who balances the books for the Girl Scouts of the Green and White Mountains Council in Bedford, was inspired to get his own detector gear years later.
“If you get into this hobby to strike it rich, you’re in a for a big surprise,” he says. “You mostly find a lot of trash – and sometimes unfortunately some dangerous things like hunting arrowheads, and God forbid, needles. But every now and then you’ll find a gold ring or a silver coin. For me, it’s all about saving history.
“These are items that were dropped hundreds of years ago that are corroding away in the ground. There’s nothing more amazing than finding something with provenance to it, especially if it has a name on it.”
Rothberg, who shares all his discoveries on his @StuingUpHistory Instagram account, recently dug up an intact metal nameplate that once belonged to former U.S. Rep James Frankland Briggs, a Republican who represented New Hampshire’s 2nd District for three terms from 1877 to 1883.
His advice for newcomers to the hobby: “Swing your coil low and slow. Take your time and don’t get frustrated. The finds you see posted online are maybe from one out of every 100 holes dug. But if you keep at it, you’ll eventually find something amazing.”
KING OF THE VANITIES
If you keep getting outbid for New Hamphire vanity plates on eBay, there’s a high likelihood that antique dealer Kyle Copeland is to blame.
“I get plates in the mail every single day. It’s getting a little out of control,” admits Copeland, who owns the Wolfeboro Antiques & Artisan Barn near Lake Winnipesaukee. “In an auction, all it takes is two people that want something badly enough. I’ve overpaid for plates because I just had to have them.”
Few of the plates are purchased for resale. Rather, they are screwed on the walls throughout his Center Ossipee home and garage, which has become a de facto vanity museum.
Copeland, who also crafts customized license plate signs and birdhouses for sale at LakesideRustics.com, started collecting as a tribute to his late father Ken, who hung them at the family lakehouse when he was a child.
The supercollector focuses on multiple vanity themes, including 1976 bicentennial plates (the year he was born), boating, New Hampshire towns and lakes, and every alternate spelling of his college nickname “Mammal.”
“We used to change our registration multiple times a year just to put more plates on the wall,” he reveals. “But we’re running out of space. I might have to build a new shed in the backyard just to display more.”