A Short History of the Iconic Cab Color

The Eye
Slate’s design blog.
Oct. 25 2013 9:30 AM

Why Are There So Many Yellow Taxis in the World?

131021_EYE_3655583729_8cd0a677f1_o
New York City taxi.

Photo courtesy adrian8_8 via Flickr

In her new book, ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color, Jude Stewart startles us into really seeing color again with interesting anecdotes about the hues that surround us. In a series of posts for the Eye, she shares some of these stories.

Bumblebee-bright, a yellow taxicab blurs across Times Square: an instantly recognizable and infinitely reproduced symbol of New York City. But New York cab companies weren't the first to paint their vehicles the now iconic yellow, a popular taxi color in many parts of the country and the world.

When businessman Harry N. Allen launched the New York Taxicab Company in 1907, introducing the city's first fleet of gasoline-powered cabs, his imported French vehicles were equipped with “taximeters” to charge fees based on mileage, manned by drivers dressed like West Point cadets—and originally painted red and green.

Advertisement

In 1915, Chicago entrepreneur John Hertz (of future rental-car-company fame) opened the first Yellow Cab Company in his city. To unify his fleet, Hertz had commissioned a local university study to “scientifically ascertain which color would stand out strongest at a distance,” per his biographer—and yellow won. (Color researchers still agree that yellow is generally the most visible color, though some have suggested that it's chartreuse that the eye most easily detects.)

But this often-told story ignores the fact that yellow taxis had already appeared in various American cities before 1915. Businessman Albert Rockwell was operating a fleet of yellow cabs as early as 1909, and he went on to incorporate the Yellow Taxicab Co. in NYC in 1912. If Hertz chose yellow for scientific reasons, legend has it that Rockwell was merely appeasing his wife Nettie, who preferred the color.

131021_EYE_6879788828_51e696e8a1_b
A 1959 Studebaker Econ-O-Miler Taxicab.

Photo courtesy Alden Jewell via Flickr

The wild popularity of gasoline-powered taxicabs lured dozens of competitors into the industry, including Morris Markin's Checker Taxi, which was based in Chicago, and later Kalamazoo, but whose vehicles were ubiquitous nationwide.

Like any madly growing business sector, the taxicab biz was rife with abuses—and the Great Depression only worsened infighting among cabbies desperate for work. The Haas Act of 1937 tried to clean up New York’s taxicab industry by regulating officially licensed cabs under a medallion system. The Haas Act didn’t mandate a specific color of taxicab, but standardizing the cabs’ look to reflect more standardized regulation made sense. With a consistent color and make, “official” taxicabs signal to wary riders that they’re duly regulated by city government.

The logic of visual standardization became fully entrenched with a 1967 ruling that all “official” New York taxicabs be painted yellow—specifically “Dupont M6284 or its equivalent,” according to Allan Fromberg of the New York Taxi & Limousine Commission. Any visual swerve therefore indicates either an unlicensed vehicle or an alternate taxicab system.

Jude Stewart writes about design and culture for Slate, The Believer, Fast Company and Print among others. Her first book, ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color, is available now.

TODAY IN SLATE

Culturebox

The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers

Education

Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 22 2014 5:54 PM May I Offer to Sharpen My Friends’ Knives? Or would that be rude?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Culturebox
Oct. 22 2014 11:54 PM The Actual World “Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.