The Story of the Yellow School Bus – When Did It All Start?

Clusters of families were dispersed throughout rural America as a result of the westward migration and urbanization of the 19th century, with only muddy ruts and a crude network of roads connecting them. Children had to travel far to get to school, or if they were fortunate, they could ride in a horse-drawn wagon that was passing. Back then, kids couldn’t have a school bus and were unable to attend school year-round due to the seasonal nature of farm work and the absence of public transportation.

The Story of the Yellow School Bus - When Did It All Start?

When it All Started

Massachusetts introduced legislation requiring compulsory schooling in 1852, and by 1900, 31 other states had adopted it. The issue was that if the state was going to require that kids go to school, they would have to get there. Schools reacted by using horse-drawn vehicles known as “kid hacks” or “school wagons” to transport students to and from school. For many years, these flimsy rides were offered, but not all parents were happy with them — the local newspaper at the time reported that in May 1897, a Mrs. W.B. Ashley of Fall River, Massachusetts, made the case that the community needed to construct a new school because “one of her children was unwell because she was unable to eat her dinners, as the child’s stomach was deranged by the jolting of the wagon.”

The demand for a school bus among American families gave rise to a jumble of options. For an Ohio school district, Wayne Works, an Indiana-based automaker, created the horse-drawn “School Car” in 1892. It featured a single back door and long wooden seats along the sides. By 1914, the business was manufacturing a motorized School Car that resembled a cross between a Model T and a trolley car. It would go on to rule for several decades as one of the leading manufacturers of school transportation in the nation.

During the Great Depression, the hollowing out of America’s rural terrain increased once again. In his 2016 book The Fight for Local Control, educational historian Campbell F. Scribner notes that of the 200,000 one-room schools operating across the country in 1915, just 1,200 remained operational in 1975. According to Iowa State University history professor Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, school consolidation prompted the requirement for the school bus. But, there were still disparities even with buses. For instance, farm students frequently had to miss sports if they needed to catch a bus.

A Bus With a Wooden Body?

Throughout the Great Depression, Wayne Works held a sizable market share, but Georgian businessman Albert Luce Sr., who owned two Ford dealerships, was developing his bus. Beginning in 1925, Luce originally joined a wooden body to a truck chassis. However, the innovation was in danger of collapsing due to the rattling it made on rough country roads, so Luce added a steel frame to stabilize it. Nevertheless, safety remained an issue, and in 1935, several school bus mishaps persuaded Luce that he needed to switch to all-steel bodywork.

There were still gaps in national standards, an issue that was acknowledged by Frank Cyr, a teacher who spent his career in many rural public schools in Nebraska and elsewhere. A study of school transportation, including trucks, buses, and even vintage wagons, was conducted in 1937 by Cyr. Two years later, Cyr asked a select number of guests to vote on a common color for school buses in the United States at the first conference devoted to improving school buses.

The winner was the vivid yellow we see today — it was decided that this hue was ideal for safety since it made it simple to read the black writing on the cars in the early morning light. The hue, which was formerly referred to as National School Bus Chrome but is now more often recognized as National School Bus Glossy Yellow, is Color 13432. Although it is not expressly required by federal law, painting school buses yellow is advised for safety reasons. The appearance of the American school bus has largely stayed unchanged since 1939, even though buses have undergone significant interior changes — for example, the side-facing seating became front-facing — since that time.