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Not all cabs are yellow — London's iconic ones are decidedly black — but the distinctive color is a classic for taxicabs. In New York City, taxis are yellow because of regulations first enacted in the late 1960s, but the process that got the first yellow cab onto the streets had begun much earlier.
One possibly apocryphal tale places the association between the color and cabs at a surprisingly early date. Jude Stewart, author of ROY G. BIV, a book about color's cultural meanings and history, explains that some people trace it back to the 15th century in Italy, though she notes that the story here is in the "fun, possibly-not-true territory" of history. The tale goes that a man named Francesco Tasso, whose family was in the postal-system business, instituted reforms to expand and centralize their system. One such reform was to make the delivery vehicles yellow, since that wasn't a color that would offend anyone politically. His innovations gained approval from the Emperor of Austria, who gave him a title "Torre e Tasso" which then Germanized into "Thurn und Taxis."
Though folklore holds that such was the origin of the word taxi, in fact that word traces only to the early 20th century, when it appeared as a shortened version of "taximeter," the device that measures the cab's mileage. It was around that same time, as early automobile taxi cabs came to the U.S., that the cabs appeared that have a stronger claim to being the first yellow taxis.
Not that the first U.S. taxis were yellow — they were actually painted red and green. In 1907, businessman Harry Allen imported his red and green vehicles with their taximeters from France to New York. He had the first metered cabs in the city, though just a year later his drivers staged a walkout over their pay. And by that point, he had some competition. Graham Hodges, taxi historian at Colgate University, describes how at the time cab-company owners would paint their fleets a signature color — there were brown and white cabs, some black ones, red cabs and checkered ones as well as yellow. In his book Taxi! A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver, he quotes The Great Gatsby, where one character lets four cabs pass her before "she selected a new one, lavender-colored with gray upholstery."
Within a few years, two notable companies had both gone for yellow: Albert Rockwell of Bristol, Conn., had established a Yellow Taxicab Company operating in New York, and John Hertz's Yellow Cab Company started in Chicago.
According to a 1954 history of Bristol, Conn., Albert Rockwell's company got its start in 1908 and, "At the suggestion of Rockwell's second wife, the cabs were painted yellow with a fancy 'R' on the door." In the 1970s, the Hartford Courant filled out the origin story: while on a trip, Rockwell and his wife Nettie had noticed the prominent role of taxi transportation in European cities, and Rockwell decided to start his own company. When his wife suggested painting the fleet yellow, her favorite color, he thought it would stand out. By 1910 the vehicles were known as the "yellow taxi" and Rockwell incorporated the Yellow Taxicab Company in 1912, with Robert C. Watson and William M. Lybrand.
The company even took legal steps to protect their identifiable color. While New York Supreme Court Justice Blanchard decided that the company couldn't have an injunction to stop other taxicab owners from painting their vehicles yellow, he ruled they could stop others from implying they were operated by the Yellow Taxicab Co., which had brought as many as 50 suits against independent operators. Based on the rulings reported in local trade publications, some injunctions did bar others from using the distinctive yellow color — including very small operators, even one that had just a couple of cabs.
But Hertz (the same man whose name is well known from the rental-car company) was the one who really made the color popular, says Allan Fromberg, Deputy Commissioner for Public Affairs at NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission . Hertz got his start in the taxi business in 1907, and and was very successful. He reportedly got the idea for the color from a study by a local university that found that yellow with a touch of red was the most visible color over greater distances. He started manufacturing his own cabs and his Chicago-based Yellow Cab Company incorporated in 1915 with 40 taxis, according to Gorman Gilbert and Robert E. Samuels' The Taxicab: an Urban Transportation Survivor. From there, write Gilbert and Samuels, Hertz added more cars, organized companies in other cities like Kansas City, Philadelphia and even New York. By 1925, the year he sold his stake in the company, he had 2,700 cabs.
Not everyone was very happy about the big companies and their well-known colors. In September of 1915, one C.J.B., "a union man and taxi driver myself," wrote a letter to The Day Book, a Chicago paper, asking how the Yellow Taxicab Co. could possibly prevent others from painting their cars yellow too. "This country is not a free county," he wrote. "It is worse than Russia. The American citizen gets no justice in America. I just want to let other citizens know what kind of justice we get."
But, no matter what C.J.B. thought, the era of taxicab restrictions was just beginning. Crucially, New York's medallion system, which limited the number of taxi licenses, was established under the Haas Act in 1937. Under the medallion system, those regulated and supervised taxis were the only ones allowed to pick up riders who hailed them on the street. Livery cabs without medallions, on the other hand, had to pre-arrange all fares. As Fromberg explains, Manhattan eventually became largely the province of the medallioned cabs, and the less-lucrative territory in the outer boroughs was largely handled by the livery cabs. But some ground was in dispute: when livery drivers ventured to far more profitable areas, like airports and hotels, the medallion cab drivers were protective of their turf.
Though yellow cabs were common by then, it wasn't the only color around. As late as 1968 the New York Times wrote of "the typical colors of the city's taxicabs — yellow, orange, red or gold." So, that year, to protect the medallioned drivers, who were regulated by the city, a law was passed that aimed to help passengers tell the difference between the two types of cabs. Once the measure took effect, medallioned cabs would be yellow and all other cabs had to be a different color. Livery-cab drivers protested the requirement, even overturning 14 medallioned cabs during a protest and burning some of them for operating in parts of Brooklyn.
"The public must be provided with an easy means of rapid identification to distinguish between the licensed taxicabs and the non-licensed private liveries. The new coloring law will serve that purpose," Mayor John Lindsay said in 1969, shortly before the law took effect, per the Times.
Today the official color for New York City taxi cabs is not just any sort of yellow, but Dupont M6284 yellow or its equivalent, says Fromberg. Recently, light green cabs were added, but they are only allowed to pick up fares in the outer boroughs and northern Manhattan.
As to why yellow became so associated with taxis if it's not exactly a universal color for taxis, Hodges points to the color's pop-culture prominence, but he has another theory too: "There are very few cars that are not taxis that are yellow."
Correction: The original version of this story misspelled the name of the Deputy Commissioner for Public Affairs at NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission. He is Allan Fromberg, not Alan Fromberg.