Do prisoners still make license plates? -- C.J., of O'Fallon
They do in many states, but not Illinois. After being tried for a couple of years to cut costs, the idea of inmates turning out plates was given the death sentence here 75 years ago.
At that time, it seemed to be another classic example of you get what you pay for.
Of course, having such a captive labor force manufacture our tags wasn't even on the radar screen when plates appeared. Starting July 1, 1907, Illinois car owners were required to pay $2 for a circular aluminum disc that they displayed on their dashboard; they then had to furnish the license plates themselves, according to a history compiled by the secretary of state's office.
The two-buck cost originally was supposed to be good for the life of the car. But the state must have seen what a gold mine it had, because already in 1909 that "lifetime" $2 payment turned into an annual fee. For the extra money, the state began supplying the plate as well as the disc in 1910.
More innovations followed. Motorcycle plates were required in 1911. Perforated and slotted front plates were offered from 1912 to 1918 so more air could flow through them to cool the radiator. The dashboard discs disappeared after 1917. The first design -- a black outline of Illinois -- was seen on the 1927 plate.
Yet through the plates' first 25 years, manufacturing contracts were awarded to private companies, including the S.G. Adams Stamp and Badge Co. in St. Louis. But that soon took a dramatic change -- and not for the better.
In 1933, National Colortype of Bellevue, Ken., was happily churning out our plates when a license plate shop was set up at the Stateville Penitentiary in Crest Hill, near Joliet. By spring, prisoners took over the production, turning out 300,000 plates the rest of the year. The cost was the lowest ever -- just 6.4 cents per set compared to 45 cents in 1913.
But in 1935, car owners found out why.
"Almost as soon as they are bolted on, the paint darkens and the plates rust," according to the state's year-by-year history. "Many thousands of plates that have deteriorated beyond legibility are replaced at no cost. This is the last year that inmates at Stateville make Illinois license plates."
The death knell came in 1937. When A.L. Bowen, the state's public welfare director, filed suit to return plate-making to the prison, the Illinois Supreme Court came down hard on Dec. 20, ruling that such a move would violate the Prison Industries Act.
"The law prohibits the goods and services of prison labor from competing in the marketplace with those of free labor," the secretary of state's website says. "License plates would never again be made in any Illinois prison."
As a result, all Illinois license plates since 1983 have been made by Macon Resources in Decatur, a non-profit organization that provides work and other services for people with disabilities (maconresources.org).
Other states, however, still rely on their prisons. In Michigan, for example, all plates are made by inmates at the Gus Harrison Correctional Facility at Adrian, and you can take a virtual tour at www.cqql.net/adrian.htm. Inmates at the Florida State Prison turn out 4.5 million plates a year -- including 70,000 for Liberia, according to a YouTube video. The New Jersey Department of Corrections proudly boasts that its inmates have been making plates since 1916. And that's not a complete list.
If you want to see our century-old plates, go to Wikipedia and search for "Illinois license plates." You can read the history at www.cyberdriveillinois.com.
I enjoyed Dianne Isbell's recent column on the word "yeah." My theory is that it comes from German immigrants. The German word for yes is "ja" (yah). Over the years, the word "yeah" resulted from these immigrants adjusting "ja" to the English "yes." -- John Fehrmann, of Highland
According to my dictionary, yeah, you may be on to something. "Yeah," it says, is "probably" the fusing of the Dutch/German "ja" with the more-English "yea," which also can mean "yes" or "indeed." However, I also can imagine some poor German here starting to say "yes" but reverts to "ja" to produce something close to "yeah." In any event, the word that drives parents, teachers and etiquette columnists crazy is thought to have popped up about 1900.
Barbara Bush was married to a president. But what commander in chief was her distant cousin?
Answer to Wednesday's trivia: So, did you earn the checkered flag when it came to finding the similarity between "racecar" and "kayak"? They're both palindromes -- words and phrases that read the same forward and backward. Of course, there are much longer palindromes, including the popular quote from Napoleon lamenting his exile on that island in the Mediterranean: "Able was I ere I saw Elba." Now people are using computers to generate palindromes containing 15,000 words -- and more.
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or email@example.com,