Why is New Jersey the Garden State? by Richard Dragon
Even though it has been stamped into and printed on more than 100 million New Jersey license plates in the past 58 years, Garden State is not the state’s motto. Despite its widespread use, it’s just a nickname, albeit one required by law to appear on passenger car plates. It is far more often associated with the state, however, than Liberty and Prosperity, the legend on the state’s original 1777 seal, which became the official state motto in 1928 when the Colonial era seal was slightly refined and updated.
As for why New Jersey is the Garden State, there simply is no definitive explanation. Most sources attribute the moniker to Abraham Browning (1808-1889), a Camden native and prominent attorney who served as state attorney general from 1845 to 1850. Mr. Browning is thought to have been the first to refer to New Jersey as the Garden State during his presentation at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. As the principal speaker on Aug. 24, 1876, New Jersey Day of the first official World’s Fair to be held in the United States, he repeated a maxim usually attributed to Benjamin Franklin to the effect that the state is like “a barrel tapped at both ends,” with Philadelphians grabbing the state’s agricultural bounty from one end and New Yorkers from the other. What might have otherwise been called The Third State (OK, maybe not) has reportedly ever since been known colloquially as the Garden State.
The state law that requires Garden State to appear on New Jersey plates was enacted by the general assembly in Dec. 1954 over the veto of Gov. Robert B. Meyner. The statute reads “The Director of the Division of Motor Vehicles…shall, upon occasion of the next and each subsequent general issue of passenger car…license plates, cause to be imprinted thereon in addition to other markings which he shall prescribe, the words ‘Garden State.’” This law caused the slogan to be introduced in 1959 on the state’s iconic black-on-straw plates, where it solidified its close association with the state.
According to Governor Meyner’s veto letter, a similar bill to the one passed in 1954 had been vetoed a year earlier by his predecessor on the grounds that “the registration plate itself…is an important legal device evidencing compliance with the laws of the State of New Jersey and it should be confined to that purpose without the detraction of any mottoes or phrases.” He went on to cite statistics to illustrate that although agriculture was important to the state, many other fields were equally prominent and should not be overshadowed. “I do not believe that the average citizen of New Jersey regards his state as more peculiarly identifiable with gardening for farming than any of its other industries or occupations.” Therefore, he concluded, “I cannot concur in the view that such justifiable purpose is served by the bill in question as would outweigh the obvious disadvantage of reducing the space on the metal license plates available for the official registration designation.” The governor’s veto was overridden by votes of over two-thirds majorities in each chamber of the general assembly, and the rest, as they say, is history.