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TAXI dreams
PART 1 : 1890-1930s PART2: 1940-2000
Taxi scene from 1890

By the end of the 19th century, automobiles began to appear on city streets throughout the country. It was not long before a number of these cars were hiring themselves out in competition with horse-drawn carriages. Although these electric-powered cabs were slightly impractical (with batteries weighing upwards of eight hundred pounds), by 1899 there were nearly one hundred of them on New York's streets. Many believed that these new cabs would provide a cleaner, quieter, and faster way to travel. But progress has always had its price, and on September 13th of that year, a sixty-eight year-old man named Henry H. Bliss was helping a friend from a street car when a taxi swerved and hit him, giving Bliss the dubious distinction of being the first American to die in an automobile accident, and giving cabbies a first glimpse at a reputation they would soon solidify.

Taxi scene from 1900

Eight years later, the New York Taxicab Company made the bold decision to import six hundred cars from France. Powered by gasoline, these red-and-green-paneled cars were the first in a new generation of city transportation. Though automobiles still made up only a fraction of New York traffic, their popularity was growing, due primarily to their easy upkeep. With the accessibility of gas-powered cars and the introduction of the taximeter (used to gauge miles traveled and time elapsed) the taxi industry flourished. By the teens, there were half a dozen large fleets, and thousands of independent owner/drivers. However, at fifty cents a mile, cabs were still geared toward the relatively wealthy.

Taxi scene from 1920

By the 1920s many industrialists had realized the economic potential of a popular taxi industry. While the largest fleets were primarily owned by the major automobile manufacturers like General Motors and the Ford Motor Company, by far the biggest and most successful was the Checkered Cab Manufacturing Company. Founded by Morris Markin, a young Russian immigrant, Checker Cabs produced the large yellow and black taxis that would become one of the most recognizable symbols of mid-20th century urban life. Though produced in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Checker cabs were, for many years, the most popular taxis in New York City.

Taxi scene from 1930

As companies like Checker grew, so did the need for enforceable regulations. Cabbies were often the victims of unfair labor practices, and passengers the victims of price gouging. Neither the police nor the Taxicab Commission could temper the corruption. With the increase in drivers during the Depression, cabbies found themselves fighting for every fare. General unrest over driving conditions and salaries was exacerbated by news that the Checker Cab Company had been bribing the then Mayor, James J. Walker. Tensions grew and in 1934 more than 2,000 taxi drivers took over Times Square in what many called the biggest strike the city had seen.

Taxi scene from 1937

In response to this unrest Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia signed the Haas Act of 1937, which introduced official taxi licenses and the medallion system that remains in place to this day. Medallions are small plates attached to the hood of a taxi, certifying it for passenger pick-up throughout the city. Providing a limited number of medallions, the government could keep a closer watch on the quality and quantity of taxis in the city. While attempting to assure better wages for the drivers, many of whom at the time were Irish, Italian, or Jewish immigrants working long days in difficult conditions, the new medallion system gave increased power to a handful of large fleet owners.