The first time New Mexico impressed a slogan into their motor vehicle license plates was 1932. We were proclaimed the “Sunshine State.” That identity, however, began 40 years earlier and its origin is credited to New Mexico Territorial Governor L. Bradford Prince, who governed from 1889 to 1893.
Prince was a businessman, leading member of the “Santa Fe Ring,” historian, author and a powerful political figure who propelled New Mexico from a lawless territory to becoming the 47th state of the Union. He was chief justice of the New Mexico Territorial Supreme Court from 1878 to 1882 and president of the New Mexico Historical Society in 1883.
In his book, The Student’s History of New Mexico (1921), Prince recalled that an editor of King’s Handbook of the United States wrote to him as governor, inquiring of the “pet name” for the state. Prince had never heard that question before. He was aware that, “nearly all of the older states have pet names, such as the ‘Empire State’ for New York, the ‘Bay State’ for Massachusetts, the ‘Granite State’ for New Hampshire, etc.,” but New Mexico had no such name. He suggested that King’s use the “Sunshine State,” and it appeared thus in their 1892 edition.
Prince noted that, “the name received universal approval and acceptance at home and abroad.” His 1891 annual report to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior stated, “I repeat the suggestion here, for no part of the Union, by its climate and cloudless sky, is so fully entitled to this name of ‘the Sunshine State.’”
September 16th, at The Chicago Exposition of 1893, was designated “New Mexico Day.” Capt. Jack Crawford, a popular storyteller and performer of the late 19th century, recited his original poem,“The Sunshine State,” In 1912, the year of long-awaited statehood, University of New Mexico President Edward Gray, wrote “The Song of the Sunshine State.” The sunshine sobriquet seemed finally and solidly cemented as integral to New Mexico’s identity.
Then, 20 years later, New Mexico impressed “Sunshine State” into their 1932 issue of car license plates and the unthinkable happened. Folks in Florida, (long known as “The Citrus State”), did what must have been incomprehensible to New Mexicans: they thought New Mexico’s slogan looked pretty dandy, so they “officially” adopted it as their own. New Mexico had never adopted their slogan. Apparently no one ever thought it was a possible source of contention. So the land known as the “Sunshine State” for almost half a century had its identity stolen outright because someone else processed some paperwork, thus making it so. And isn’t that exactly how identity theft occurs today?
As in most cases of identity theft, the victim remained stunned, shamed and relatively silent. Both Governor Prince and Capt. Jack were long since deceased—unable to assemble nary an argument nor objection. Because the action was so swift and final, we can only imagine the brief thoughts of recourse that must have gone through the minds of New Mexican officials. However, had an avenue of copyright infringement been pursued, legal advice would have been discouraging.
Slogans cannot be copyrighted. What the State of Florida did to protect their “ownership” of the slogan was something that New Mexico had simply failed to do: they officially adopted the name by resolution. There are no records to establish that New Mexico had ever adopted or even considered the adoption of their state slogan, thus the state was left slogan-less at a most uncomfortable and unfortunate moment.
Establishment of the federal highway system in 1926 brought U.S. Route 66 and a steady flow of cross-country traffic right through the state. While the 1933 and subsequent issues of New Mexico’s license plates were pressed without a slogan, effective use of state slogans were seen as tools to help brand and boost public awareness, which in turn helped to attract more tourist dollars. New Mexico needed a new slogan.
The earliest use of the phrase, “Land of Enchantment” is found in a 1906 book by Lilian Whiting: The Land of Enchantment: From Pike’s Peak to the Pacific. In 1935, the New Mexico Department of Tourism began using the borrowed phrase in their brochures and in 1941, the state
began imprinting the now familiar “Land of Enchantment” slogan on their license plates. The rest is, as they say, “history.”
Ironically, between 1912 and 1924, a collection of guidebooks titled the See America First series, contained a volume, titled: Florida: The Land of Enchantment;. And in yet one further irony, New Mexico’s other nickname is: “The Land of Mañana,” which can mean “tomorrow,” or possibly, “some time the future,” but certainly not “today.” In living up to that nickname, the state didn’t get around to adopting its “new” state slogan, the “Land of Enchantment,” for another 58 years. Now tell me you’re surprised.
Note from J.A. Ueckert: This is the first writing to be published after a traumatic brain injury in 2013. With aid and assistance from William T. Hines, counselor at the New Mexico Division of Vocational Rehabilitation in Edgewood, I was able to attend Central New Mexico Community College where I took courses, “Introduction to Digital Media,” in particular, with Instructor Jose Velez. A lengthier version of this article was accepted as a writing assignment for Mr. Velez’ class. (I got an A). I deeply thank these two gentlemen and everyone else who has been so patient and understanding.