Friday, September 11, 2015

New York, London, Paris (but not Munich) - the Checkered History of Yellow Cabs

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New York, London, Paris (but not Munich) – a Checkered History of Yellow Cabs

John Hertz – yes, that Hertz – is generally credited with establishing the yellow cab as a pop-culture icon.  Hertz, a former boxing manager and car salesman went into the cab business in 1907, but did not launch his first fleet of yellow cabs in Chicago until August 2, 1915.  His business prospered, based in part on his revolutionary business model and perhaps also because of the distinctive look of his yellow cabs.  He soon exported his business model into other markets and went into manufacturing; his Yellow Cab Manufacturing Company built yellow cabs, busses and trucks.  His bus and truck divisions were so successful that General Motors purchased them in 1925.  

Hertz was a good business man who knew a good thing when he saw it, but he did not invent his business plan or the yellow cab.  In 1914, Hertz’ doctors sent him to Europe to recover from the strain of a bitter taxi-driver strike in Chicago:

In Paris he learned that a short taxi ride could be had for ten cents.  He investigated.

Back he came determined to revolutionize the taxi-cab business in this country.

Bertie C. Forbes and Orline D. Foster, Automotive Giants of America: Men Who Are Making Our Motor Industry, New York, B. C. Forbes, 1926, page 147.

The “European system” operated on a strictly cash basis and cabs picked up customers on the street or at public stands, instead of relying on private contracts with clubs,  hotels and cafes:

Although urban legend has it that Hertz selected yellow on the recommendation of a university study he commissioned to determine the color that would stand out the most from a distance,[i] no such study has ever been found.  And in any case, it doesn’t take a PhD to realize that yellow is a bright, attention-getting color; as attested by own my cool, yellow car:   

Attacked by giant grasshoppers near Taylor, North Dakota.

Escaping giant pheasants near Regent, North Dakota.

Just a few years before Hertz unleashed yellow cabs in Chicago, in fact, some other genius painted the doors of new taxicabs in Boston yellow for precisely that reason:

Boston as a Taxicab Town.  Boston, March 4 [(1909)]. –

The Taxi-Service Company, the largest in the field, began operating its Berliet cabs on September 1 of last year, and after six months of work its experience has shown that Bostonians appreciate this quick method of getting from place to place. . . . To distinguish them from competitors, the door of each has been painted a dull yellow, and they can be readily recognized at some distance.

The Automobile, Volume 20, Number 9, March 4, 1909, page 377.

Boston's Yellow-door Taxicabs - 1909

Hertz could have borrowed the idea of yellow cabs from any number of places.

Yellow cabs were fixtures in the pop-culture of New York, London, Paris (but not Munich) long before Hertz brought them to Chicago in 1915.

Yellow Cabs and Delacroix’s Theory of Color

The French Impressionists’ artistic revolution of the late 1800s was based, in large part, on scientific developments in the understanding of color, psychology, and the physiology of the eye.  , The pointillists carried this “scientific” approach to to its logical conclusion – creating an entire image of very small dots of individual colors, much like how the eye perceives color with its array of rods and cones.  Ferris Bueller and his friend Cameron observed the effect on their day off at the Art Institute of Chicago (at 1:30 of this clip).  The technique foreshadowed color-dot, color-television technology by several decades and the pixels on your video screen by more than a century.  

The Pointillists and the Impressionists were influenced by chemist Michel Eugene Chevreul’s, The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours, and their Applications to the Arts, first published in 1839.  Chevreul described, among other things, his theory of “simultaneous contrast;” in which two colors, placed side-by-side, each affect our perception of the other one; with complementary colors creating the most dramatic contrast.[ii]  Vincent Van Gogh used the technique in his masterpiece Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles (1888).  

But although Chevreul may be responsible for laying out the principles in an orderly, coherent manner, earlier painters had already developed an understanding of “simultaneous contrast” before his book was published. 

In Eugène Delacroix’s The Execution of Marino Faliero (1827), for example, Delacroix used violet shadows instead of black to create contrast with the prominent yellows used throughout the painting.  According to Delacroix’s contemporary, Alexandre Dumas (of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo fame), Delacroix first developed his theory of color contrast while painting Marino Faliero – he was inspired by . . . (wait for it . . . ) a yellow cab:

“I do not know whether any, among the persons who hear me, may recollect having seen, at this period [(while painting Marino Faliero (1827))], canary-yellow cabs – that is, of the fiercest (la plus farouche) yellow that can be seen.  Delacroix stopped short before the body of his cab; it was a yellow like that which he wanted; but in the position where the carriage was placed, what gave it that dazzling tone?  It was not the tone itself, it was the shading which made it come out.  But these shadings were violet.  Delacroix had no further occasion to go to the Louvre; he paid the cab and went upstairs to his room: he had caught his effect.” 

“The Crimson Star,” Rev. T. W. Webb, The Intellectual Observer, Volume 11, 1867, page 151.[iii] 

 And Delacroix put his new effect to good use in, The Execution of Marino Faliero (1827):

The Execution of Marino Faliero, Eugène Delacroix, 1827.

When Delacroix cancelled his yellow-cab cab ride to the Louvre in 1827, yellow cabs had already been a long-standing feature of French culture; if not on the street, then at least in the theater. 

          Cabriolet Jaune

One of the big hits of fall 1798 season at Paris’ Theatre de l’Opera Comique National was Tarchi and Segur’s, Le cabriolet jaune ou Le phénix d'Angoulême (The Yellow Cab or the Phoenix of Angoulême).  The star of the show was renowned French tenor, Jean Elleviou.  The story involved a nobleman, a servant, two girls, jealousy, mistaken identity, and two yellow cabs.  I am not a French speaker, but that is the gist of what I could get out of the GoogleTranslate.  I also could not tell whether these were cabs for hire or private buggies of the cabriolet style.

The French word cabriolet is the source of the English word cab.  Cabriolet is used in English too, to designate a specific type of horse-drawn carriage.   Apparently, cabriolet-style wagons were used as conveyances for hire with sufficient frequency that the word came to mean a vehicle for hire, and in the shortened form became, cab.  In German, Cabriolet designates a convertible car – as in Porsche Cabriolet. 

          Yellow Cabs in Paris

In the 1880s, Parisians could choose from two different tones of yellow on their cabs:

Cabs for hire are stationed, as in London, in all parts of Paris.  The greater part of them belong to three companies.  Green cabs are generally those of the Compagnie Generale, who own over 5,000; pale yellow cabs belong to the Compagnie Urbaine; and deep yellow cabs to the Compagnie Camille.

Cassel’s Illustrated Guide to Paris, 1884, page 122.

An item from a London newspaper referred to the yellow cabs of Paris as somehow “democratic”:

The Asheville Citizen, February 14, 1886, page 3.

Yellow cabs were not confined to France.  There were yellow cabs in Germany and London as well.

Democracy in action?


A green parasol was left behind in a yellow cab on Saturday evening between 9 and 10 o’clock. Its return is requested.

Intelligenz-Blatt der freien Stadt Frankfurt, Number 163, July 13, 1858, page 393.

During the same period, there were also several advertisements for auctions in which yellow cabs were to be sold; perhaps suggesting that there were more than just the one yellow cab in town:

Notice of Auction.

Wednesday the 7th of January, 2 o’clock in the afternoon . . . .

          a) 1 yellow cab . . . .

Intelligenz-Blatt der freien Stadt Frankfurt, Number 4, January 6, 1857.

Similar advertisements showed up on several occasions during the ensuing few years, suggesting that yellow cabs may have been a fairly common site in Frankfurt in the mid-1800s.


German author Gabriele Reuter (born in 1859) was popular during her lifetime, but largely unknown today.  In her 1921 autobiography[iv],  she relates the story of her arrival in Weimar as a young woman.  When she stepped into a yellow cab (gelbe Droschke) at the railroad station and gave the driver her aunt’s address; he refused to move.  Then another customer stepped into the same yellow cab, lit a cigarette and asked the driver to take him to the Russian hotel.  Remembering her mother’s advice about stranger-danger out in the big-bad world, she asked the gentleman to get out; it was her cab.  He just laughed at her.  Eventually, the yellow cab took off, first dropping the second customer at the Russian hotel, and then went on its merry way.  When her aunt finally caught up with her, she learned that the yellow cabs were more in the nature of an airport shuttle than a cab; you purchased a single seat, and if it was full, you could go all over town before reaching your desired address.  All of the cabs in that service were apparently yellow.

New York

New York may have gotten its first taste of yellow cabs in 1884 with William Vanderbilt’s[v] fleet of “black and tans” or “yellow cabs.”  The new service offered revised, more predictable, and generally cheaper fare schedule; shaking up the cab-for-hire establishment much like Uber in more recent years:


Hackmen, Alarmed at the Innovation, Threaten a War in Rates.
The hackmen at the Grand Central Depot are somewhat agitated over the yellow-banded innovations that are whisking over town.  It was noticeable yesterday that more than half of the incoming passengers inquired for the 25-cent cabs.  The private cabmen admitted a large falling off in patronage.

It was understood that the new cabs would keep on the move and not occupy stands, and that the drivers would not solicit patronage.  But bright and early yesterday morning two yellow cabs took up their stand opposite the Grand Central Depot, and the drivers elbowed their way into the ranks of the regulars and picked up loads before the others caught a fare.

The Sun (New York), April 3, 1884, page 1.

Yellow impostors soon followed; but without the same cheap rates:


Imitation Black-and-Tans Seeking Whom they may Devour at Schedule Rates.

A young man swallowed a cocktail at the Windsor Hotel bar on Thursday morning shook hands with his companion, and said he had an engagement to breakfast with friends at Delmonico’s.  He went outside, felt in his pocket, and waited fifteen minutes until a yellow and black cab came along.  The cab pulled up at his hail.  “Glad I met you,” the young man said to the driver, as he stepped into the cab.  “These new cabs are great things when a fellow’s strapped.”

The liveried driver smiled in a friendly way, but said nothing, and drove rapidly to Delmonico’s.  Here, his fare was tendered him, two dimes and a nickel.

“Nixy,” said the driver.  “Dollar  a mile.”

“Why, it’s a yellow cab,” protested the customer.

“Some cabs is yellow cab,” protested the customer.

“Some cabs is yellow,” said the driver.  “Matter of taste.  Some is green.  Fare’s a dollar, sir.  No cut rates aboard this institution.”

“Oh, yes,” said one of Ryerson & Brown’s agents, in their stable at 6 West Forty-fifth street last night, “we are beginning to get complaints of this sort; but they are not against our men.  These fellows who overcharge are what we call ‘the buckers.’ At least five men who own cabs of their own have been painting the running gear and the lower half of the body yellow, in imitation of ours.  They haven’t succeeded in getting the fine shade of canary, however, that we have on ours.”

At the Grand Central depot there were forty cabs in line last night.  Not a black-and-tan was to be seen.  “The York Cab Company takes in their cabs at sunset,” said a hack driver, “and that gives us a show.  But these ‘bucker’ fellows stay out all night like the rest of us, and beat us out of many a fare.  There’s only five or six of them altogether, and we let them know last night they couldn’t hang around here.  They’re worse than the Ryerson fellows a blamed sight.  We don’t want either kind around here.”

The Sun (New York), April 12, 1884, page 1.

New York Times, June 22, 1884.

The competition forced some companies to change their rate structure:


The New-York Cab Association, having adopted the cheap rates of fare, has added 25 new cabs to its stock and is prepared to offer the public quick and comfortable transit and guarantee it against extortion. . . .  The association has two classes of cabs, the ordinary hack cab and the yellow cab.  The black cab, when waiting for a fare, is distinguishable from other black cabs by a small sign on the roof over each door, bearing the name of the association, and the rates, “25 cents per mile, $1 for the first hour, and 75 cents for each additional hour.”  As soon as one of these cabs is engaged these signs are taken in by the driver. 

The New York Times, September 23, 1884.

The company that owned the yellow cabs eventually won an injunction protecting its trademark look:

The judge explained that he did not mean to hold that the company was entitled to any exclusive property in color or in words, but he held that it “has so far established a trade-mark in the words and color and device, as they are combined and used, that the plaintiff is entitled to call upon a court of equity for protection against imitations designed to mislead the public, and to deprive the plaintiff of its profits.”  Everybody who has had anything to do with the drivers of the bogus cheap cabs knows that, while they will usually accept the established low rates, the majority of them will take advantage of strangers or persons whom they know to be in too great a hurry to lose time parleying with them or hunting for another vehicle.  It is not logical to expect fair dealing from a man who seeks patronage under false pretense.  The public will rejoice in every decision against the bogus black-and-tans.

Harper’s Weekly, Volume 28, Number 1451, October 11, 1884, page 673.

But despite their early success, and the appeal of the cheaper rates, the yellow cabs seem to have disappeared by about 1887.  About twenty-five years later during another period of cab-rate reform, a reporter waxed nostalgic about the “Old Yellow Cab age” when cabs were affordable.[vi]


If the punch line of this joke is any indication, yellow cabs appear to have been familiar a familiar sight in London in 1868:

Flies in Amber. – Yellow Cabs.

There appear to have been yellow cabs in London in 1882 as well; an American brought one back for personal use:

Mrs. Whittier of Boston, the heiress of the eccentric Mr. Eben Wright, drives about a good deal, and is quite a prominent person just now.  She imported quite early in the season a regular London four-wheeled cab, painted a bright yellow, but, in point of construction and finish, as a wax candle to a farthing rushlight in comparison with the wretched hacks that patrol London streets.  This is used to convey guests and their belongings to and from the trains, and it made quite a sensation in Boston on its first appearance there.

The Sun (New York), August 13, 1882, page 5.

Fifteen years later, when the first electric cabs were tested and approved for use in London, they were primarily yellow:

The old style of London cabman is doomed – there is no doubt about that.  Not only has he to contend with the taximeter[vii], but the yellow electrical cabs after a brief interval of retirement are to burst upon the streets once more to-day to the number of eighty.  London is so overdone with cabs that the addition of eighty new ones to the existing total is a serious matter, especially when the fourscore are of a novel and attractive kind.  These electric “hackney carriages” are comfortable, and have only two drawbacks – they are (or were) a trifle noisy, and they attract rather too much public attention.  The works, we understand, have now been simplified, and as they increase in number and familiarity the occupants will not get stared at quite so unmercifully.

New York Tribune, June 12, 1899, page 8.


Yellow cabs, or at least partially yellow cabs, were also apparently common in London in the 1910s.  In 1913, a judge ruled in favor of a plaintiff in a trademark dispute involving green-and-yellow cabs in use since at least 1909.  The plaintiff prevailed not because their colors were distinctive (green and yellow cabs were “common to the trade”), but because the defendant had copied their initials:[viii]  

I think it is clear that Messrs. Du Cros were the first persons to put the green and yellow cabs on the market.  In course of time other persons, apparently seeing that they were attractive and pleased the public, have painted their cabs green and yellow too.  There are a substantial number of people now who have green and yellow cabs; the Defendant is only one of them.  On the other hand when the Defendant paints his cabs in colours so nearly like the colours which the Plaintiffs have used, he must be exceedingly careful not to copy the Planitiffs in other details. . . . I base my judgment not upon the green and yellow, which upon the evidence I must now take to be common to the trade, but upon the association of those elements with the “M. G.” painted in a deceptive manner.

W. and G. du Cros Ld. V. Gold, The Illustrated Official Journal (Patents), Volume 30, Number 5, March 5, 1913, pages 127-28.

New York was the scene of another trademark dispute involving yellow cabs in 1913.

New York, New York

The article about Boston’s yellow-door taxis excerpted at the beginning of this article also suggested that the same company had cabs in New York City in late-spring 1909:

. . . has just established a branch company in New York City, taking over the service of the Waldorf-Astoria, the Holland House and five smaller hotels.  It is operating sixty automobiles and two hundred horses in caring for the business there, and the horses will be displaced as fast as the cabs can be secured.  The cabs have proven much more economical and efficient than the horse-drawn vehicles.

The Automobile, Volume 20, Number 9, March 4, 1909, page 377.

There is no confirmation that those cabs were yellow; but it certainly seems possible.
And even if those cabs were not yellow, an entire fleet of yellow cabs took to the streets of New York in June of 1909:  

The new “Yellow Cabs” looked like this (although with a different paint job):

One of the new yellow cabs’ selling points was that they were equipped with reliable taximeters (the device that automatically calculates the fare based on time, distance, and a per-use fee) which were apparently still a novelty in New York City:

President C. F. Wyckoff of the W. C. P. Taxicab Company, which operates the yellow cabs, says the company lays great stress on the accuracy of its taximeters, which led to an interesting wager recently, . . . resulting in two yellow cabs being telephoned for.
It was decided to run them in a straight course on West End avenue for twenty blocks, the W. C. P. taxicab representative agreeing to pay the wager if the meters on the two cabs did not register exactly the same fare.  The result was a thorough conversion of the skeptical club member, as both cabs totaled exactly the same fare.

The Sun (New York), June 20, 1909, page 11.

The same company, or its successor, was still in business in 1912 when it sought injunctions to restrain members of the Independent Taxicab Owners Association from painting their cabs yellow:

After hearing argument Justice Blanchard reserved decision in the case, but said that it was his opinion from the argument that no one has a right to appropriate to himself yellow or any other color and seek to have the law construe that he has a property right in the color.

B. H. Holden, counsel for the Yellow Taxi Company, said that his client adopted the color in 1909 when everybody else had ridiculed it, and that since then the company has built up a prosperous business, which has led the owners of independent machines to imitate the color to lead the public to believe the machines were the plaintiff’s. . . .

You are entitled to relief if you can show deceit, but not for the use of the same color,” said the court.

The Sun (New York), May 10, 1912, page 11.

The company brought a whole slew of similar cases throughout the next two years; mostly with similar results:

Ultimately, however, the Yellow Cab Company ran into some legal troubles of its own involving graft (free rides to politicians and city officials) and operating without a proper business license (which they got away with by giving away free rides).

The resultant backlash led to taxicab reforms which many hoped would result in cheaper fares.  The speech balloon of a cartoon celebrating the fact left a hint at the origin of Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman’s signature catch phrase, “What, Me Worry?” (No really, see my post on the origins of What Me Worry? here – and my post on the origins of Alfred E. Neuman here).

The Evening World, August 22, 1913, page 14.


John Hertz launched his Yellow Taxicab Company on August 2, 1915.  

Once again, the color proved so popular that he was in court protecting his yellowness barely one month later:

Now the Little Fellows Will be “Blue”

The color line was drawn for taxicabs yesterday.  As soon as the Yellow Taxicab Co. started advertising and put its cars on the street, a flock of other yellow cabs appeared.

The Yellow T. C. went into court to keep the little fellow from using yellow cabs and Judge Arnold has decided in favor of the Y. T. C.

The Day Book (Chicago), September 8, 1915, page 3.

By 1926, his Yellow Cabs operated in more than 1,000 cities across the United States and his Yellow Coach Manufacturing Company was cranking out 10,000 taxicabs a year.

And the rental-car company that bears his name still has a yellow logo; a legacy of its yellow-cab past.  

Hertz may not have been first – but he seems to have had the last laugh – unless Uber has something to say about it.

[i] Forbes and Foster, Automotive Giants of America, page 147.
[iii] See also, The Sun, May 26, 1912, Magazine Section, page 4, column 4 (Unable to get the brilliancy he desired, he was once more going to the Louvre to consult Rubens when he happened to observe the black and yellow body of the cab that had been called.  The black beside the yellow was not black, but tinged with mauve.  Here was the law in germ – the bright yellow compels the eye to see its complementary color in the adjacent space.  If you want your yellow to look its brightest put its complementary beside it, for that will force the eye to see yellower.).
[iv] Gabriele Reuter, Vom Kinde zum Menschen, die Geschichte meiner Jugend (From Childhood to Adulthood, the Story of My Youth), Berlin, G. Fischer Verlag, 1921.
[v] The Sun (New York), February 14, 1886, page 2 (crediting “Mr. Willie Vanderbilt” with having established New York’s yellow cabs of 1884).
[vi] The Sun (New York), April 24, 1913, page 3.
[vii] A “taximeter” is the device that automatically calculates the fare based on time, distance, and a per-use fee.  The taximeter was invented in the 1870s, but was not commercially viable until the 1890s.  They were used widely in Europe during the 1890s and only came into use slowing in the United States during the early 1900s.
[viii] W. and G. du Cros v. Gold, Chan. Div (Swinfen Eady, J.), December 12, 1912, The Times Law Reports (London), volume 29, Friday, January 24, 1913, page 163.

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