A Short History of Ye Old City Bus

mack 2
Left, Blaise Pascal, who talked King Louis XIV to go into the bus business back in 1662. Right, a 1901 Mack bus, supposedly the world’s first bus. 

A Short History of Ye Old City Bus

Do you know when the world saw its first city bus route? Would you believe in 1662? It’s true! That was the year the French philosopher Blaise Pascal got old King Louis XIV—the Sun King—away from a Versailles garden party long enough to issue a royal “bus” franchise. Pascal’s “buses,” which were actually horse-drawn extended carriages, traveled five fixed routes along the streets of Paris. But alas, that far-sighted experiment didn’t end so well, one of the main problems being that old Pascal up and died during the second year of business.

Parisians had to wait another 150 some-odd years before catching the next bus, or until 1815 when the first omnibuses (1) started plodding along regular fixed routes. (2) In one form or other, city buses have been rolling along Parisian streets ever since. Nine years later John Greenwood started England’s first bus service in Manchester. Steam powered omnibuses made their debut in England in the 1830s thanks to Walter Hancock and Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, among others. (3) These were quite the improvement over horse-drawn buses—if they didn’t blow up and kill everyone on board. Berlin got its first bus line in 1840, running between Alexanderplatz and Potsdamer Bahnhof.

Here in the States the first fixed-route public transit was said to have been in New York City in 1740, where, legend says, ox carts ran along Broadway picking up and dislodging passengers on demand. (4) Legend aside, America’s first documented fixed transit route was the accomplishment of Abraham Brower who, in 1827, ran a horse-drawn carriage in New York City along the extreme of Manhattan Island down Broadway to Bleeker Street, about one and three-quarters of a mile to the north. His open-sided roofed carriage featured gates on either side for passengers to enter or exit. The design was improved when Brower constructed a carriage that resembled our modern buses by seating passengers on the sides facing one another with a single entry/exit door at the rear. He also included curtains that could be drawn to keep out dust and inclement weather, and he advertised the thing by the new European designation “omnibus.”

Admittedly a ride on Abe Brower’s newfangled bus was pricey—one shilling, or about 12¢—but hey, we’re talking about going in style here! (5) Okay, so there were some minor annoyances, as the October 2, 1854, edition of the New York Herald was compelled to point out: “Modern martyrdom may be succinctly defined as riding in an omnibus. The discomforts, inconveniences, and annoyances of a trip in one of these vehicles are almost intolerable. From the beginning to the end of the journey a constant quarrel is progressing. The driver quarrels with the passengers, and the passengers quarrel with the driver. There are quarrels about getting out and about getting in. There are quarrels about change and about the ticket swindle. The driver swears at the passengers and the passengers harangue the driver through the strap hole—a position in which even Demosthenes could not be eloquent. Respectable clergymen in white chokers are obliged to listen to loud oaths. Ladies are disgusted, frightened, and insulted. Children are alarmed and lift up their voice and weep. Indignant gentlemen rise to remonstrate with the irate Jehu and are suddenly bumped back into their seats, twice as indignant as before, besides being involved in supplementary quarrels with those other passengers upon whose corns they have accidentally trodden. Thus the omnibus rolls along, a perfect bedlam on wheels.” (6)

This was not a lone reporter’s view of the omnibus. A fellow from the New York Tribune described the omnibus as “… cold in winter and stuffy in summer. It has a perennially frowsy smell; a flavor of remote antiquity; of the strange period when people used straight, hard-seated, highbacked chairs, and otherwise mortified the flesh in their domestic arrangements. Its exterior always suggested the idea that the inventor of the machine had designs for a circus band-wagon floating through his powerful mind when he conceived this chaste and unique creation, and that these reminiscences were fused with hazy glimpses of the decorations of a dime museum … the passenger is almost sure to knock his head both getting in and out, and if he does not also tread on the feet of his fellow-sufferers on both occasions he and they may congratulate themselves. The arrangements for shooting passengers out into the mud suddenly are unsurpassed, unless it be by the facilities for compelling them to plunge wildly forward toward the horses when they enter.” (7)

In case you’re thinking things had to improve over time, here’s a report dating from 1882 that will dispel that notion: The majority of these vehicles are filthy, badly ventilated and full of vermin. In the winter the floor is covered with straw as a protection from the cold, but this soon becomes foul and constitutes an intolerable nuisance. A crowded car is a favorite spot for pickpockets to ply their trade. The drivers and conductors are often brutal wretches, and insult and maltreat their passengers in a manner that would be incredible were not the facts so well attested. (8)

So why, in the name of decency, when a healthy person could out-walk an omnibus, would any sane man or woman pay for a ride from hell? An obvious reason was foul weather, while another was American city streets of that era. City streets, when wet, were a sinkhole of mud, slime and horse droppings, and in hot, dry weather the dust would render a person filthy within a few blocks. In other words, if you desired to arrive at your destination dry and in reasonably clean attire without mud and manure on your shoes and clothing, then a bus was the only way to achieve that goal.

The good news is that all bad things must come to an end … or do I have that backwards? Anyway, the invention of railcars was a move forward in mass transit evolution.

The world’s first passenger rail service began in Wales in 1807 when the Oystermouth Railway launched their stagecoach-type cars. Although not an instant success story, after a few decades of refinement passenger rail service began catching on.

Rail service came to America on November 26, 1832, when John Mason, the president of the Chemical Bank of New York, opened the New York & Harlem Railroad. In fact, that date gives banker John the distinction of launching the world’s first horse-drawn rail trolley. (9) Within fifty years Mason’s small line had paved the way for some 415 other streetcar firms employing 35,000 workers, 18,000 cars and over 100,000 horses and mules traveling over 3,000 miles of track. Combined, these lines annually carried a total of 1.2 billion passengers and represented a total capital investment of $150 million—or roughly $3.5 billion in today’s value. (10)

The day of horse-drawn public transit began to rapidly wane in 1873, which is the year that Andrew Smith Hallidie’s little cable cars rolled onto the streets of San Francisco. This uniquely complicated little contraption ran on underground steel cables powered by massive steam engines in a centrally located plant. The problem with this innovation was that those cable cars traveled at a constant speed, meaning that when one rounded a sharp curve it didn’t slow down. That resulted in the occasional passenger being jettisoned from the open sides into the streets. If fortune smiled on the hapless passenger, he didn’t land in front of an on-coming beer wagon; if it wasn’t his lucky day, then the company would cheerfully refund the 5¢ fare to the next of kin. (11)

As fate would have it, cable cars turned out to be just a flash-in-the-pan in mass transit evolution. Better things were coming down the highway.

At the 1879 Berlin Industrial Exhibition Werner von Siemens displayed a 2-h.p., narrow-gauge electric locomotive that was about the size of a golf cart. Using this model, nine years later Frank Sprague built the world’s first electric streetcar system in Richmond, Virginia. Three years after that, some two hundred cities had electric-powered streetcar systems—an advancement that essentially heralded the doom of the cable car. (12)

Thanks to the efforts of inventors like Karl Benz, who, in 1885 in Germany, demonstrated the first successful self-propelled vehicle powered by an internal-combustion engine—the Benz Patent Motorwagen—it didn’t take long for the combustion engine to make inroads into the mass transit industry.(12) Eighteen hundred ninety-one saw the first “automobile” built from the ground up by the team of Rene Panhard and Emile Lavassor over in France. This was followed the next year by Charles Duryea who invented the carburetor right here in America—an invention that would soon propel the internal-combustion engine into a dominant position in mass transit.

The first gasoline-powered bus was built by Mack (13) in 1901, but the things didn’t really take off until 1905 when the Fifth Avenue Coach Company (FACC) of New York introduced a double-decker “gasoline electric motor omnibus” and turned it loose to lumber through the streets of New York City between Washington Square and 88th Street. Truly, it was a unique conveyance featuring a 40-h.p. gasoline engine with an electric-starting engine that didn’t require hand cranking. The wheels were powered by two 45-h.p. General Electric motors, and there was an improvement over the side bench arrangement of the horse-drawn omnibuses, since passengers sat in rows of forward-facing seats.

As you can imagine, New York City’s streetcar companies didn’t take kindly to the invasion of their motorized competition and on several occasions, because of a “cozy” relationship with NYC officials, had Fifth Avenue Coach Company’s drivers arrested, dragged from their coaches in mid-operation and hauled before a city magistrate. One of FACC’s “crimes” was violating a city ordinance that said a bus couldn’t stand over ten feet, whereas the Fifth Avenue Coach Company’s buses were twelve feet in height. Another “crime” was having advertising on the sides of buses, which was a violation of an obscure NYC ordinance—section 41, code 4—prohibiting “advertizing wagons” from driving the streets of Manhattan. This harassment continued until such matters were removed from the jurisdiction of bought-and-paid-for city officials and placed in the hands of the newly-created Public Service Commission. (14)

Well, enough with the ancient history lesson already! Now onto the transit badges, the companies that issued ‘em and the odd balls like me who collect the things.


1 Omnibus is an old term for bus or wagonette, “omni” being the Latin for “all.” So an omnibus is a bus for all, or a public bus.

2 Cudahy, Brian J. Cash • Token • And • Transfers A History of Urban Mass Transit in North America. (New York: Fordham University Press, 1990), p. 224, note 5.

3 Benson, Bruce L. The Rise and Fall of on-Government Roads in the United Kingdom. (Street Smart: Competition, Entrepreneurship and the Future of Roads), pp. 263–264 as cited on Wikipedia, article “Steam bus.”

4 “Broadway Buses to Run Wednesday.” The New York Times. February 9, 1936, pt. II, pp.1-2 as cited in Cudahy, Brian J., op. cit., p. 9.

5 Before gold and silver were discovered in the American West in the mid-1800s, the United States lacked a sufficient quantity of precious metals for minting coins. Thus, a 1793 U.S. law permitted Spanish dollars, English shillings and other foreign coins as legal tender. Foreign coins were not banned as legal tender in the United States until 1857. Also see, Cudahy, Brian J., op. cit., pp. 9-10.

6 Coffee, John M., Jr. The Atwood-Coffee Catalogue of United States and Canadian Transportation Tokens Fourth Edition Volume Two History and Encyclopedia of Transportation Tokens. (Boston, Massachusetts: American Vecturist Association, 1986), pp. 4-5.

7 ibid.

8 Coffee, John M., Jr., op. cit., p. 7., citing a transit report from New York City in 1882.

9 Actually, the word “trolley” wasn’t used in 1832. The term “trolley” originated from the earliest electric rail cars, which didn’t use a pole, but rather a system in which a car dragged an overhead cable connected to a small cart—or “troller”—that rode on a “track” of overhead wires. From the side, the dragging lines made the car seem to be “trolling,” as in fishing. Later, when a pole was added, it came to be known as a trolley pole, hence the cars were known as “trolleys.” Source: Wikipedia, article “trolley pole.”

10 Little, Hardin H., “The Founding of the Street Railway Association,” Street Railway Journal, 24, No.25, Oct. 8, 1904, p. 517, as cited in Cudahy, op. cit., p. 12.
11 By 1913 only San Francisco, California, and Seattle and Tacoma, Washington, still had operating cable car companies. Tacoma’s cable cars stopped running in 1938 with Seattle’s line following suit in 1940. Today, only San Francisco still runs their famous little cable cars, although only along 4.7 route miles.

12 Benz went on to market an automobile in 1901 through Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft. When Benz and Gottlieb Daimler merged it was the beginning of Mercedes-Benz.

13 In the 1890s, brothers John Mack and Augustus F. “Gus” Mack, formed a motor building business. In 1900 the brothers opened a bus manufacturing plant and build the world’s first passenger bus. In 1902 the Mack Brothers Company was established in New York, introducing the name “Manhattan” on its products. In 1910 the Manhattan name was changed to Mack Trucks.

14 Cudahy, Brian J., op. cit., pp. 101-102.

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