A Brief History of the School Bus

It’s as traditional as the ABCs. But the school bus has always been a vehicle for change

kids getting on a school bus in a suburban neighborhood in the 1960s
How does a nation committed to education increase access? Give kids a lift. Getty Images

The westward expansion and urbanization of the 19th century left clusters of families scattered across rural America, with only muddy ruts and a rudimentary web of roads to connect them. To attend school, children had to walk for miles, or else, if they were lucky, they might catch a ride on a passing horse-drawn wagon. The seasonal nature of farm work, and the lack of public transportation, often meant that many children couldn’t go to school year-round.

In 1852, Massachusetts passed a compulsory education law, and by 1900, thirty-one other states had similar requirements. But there was a problem: If the state was going to mandate that children attend school, the kids would have to get there. Schools responded by trundling children to and from school on horse-drawn conveyances called “kid hacks” or “school wagons.” These rickety rides went on for decades, and not all parents were pleased: In May of 1897, a Mrs. W.B. Ashley of Fall River, Massachusetts, argued that the town needed to build a new school, since “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 local paper reported at the time.

American families’ need for school transport begat a hodgepodge of solutions. In 1892, Wayne Works, an automotive company in Indiana, developed its horse-drawn “School Car” for a school district in Ohio, with a single entrance in the back and long wooden benches along the sides. By 1914, the company was producing a motorized School Car—it looked like a mash-up between a Model T and a trolley car—and would enjoy a decades-long reign as one of the top producers of school transport in the country.

a black and white photography from 1909 of kids on a school bus
Students pack the Antelope Valley Union High School’s first bus in northern Los Angeles County circa the 1910s. California Historical Society

The hollowing out of America’s rural landscape accelerated again during the Great Depression. As the educational historian Campbell F. Scribner writes in his 2016 book The Fight for Local Control, “Of the 200,000 one-room schools in operation across the country in 1915, only 1,200 remained open in 1975.” “School consolidation drove the necessity for the school bus,” explains Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, a professor of history at Iowa State University. Even with buses, though, inequities remained. Farm kids, for example, often couldn’t stick around for sports if they had to catch a bus.

While Wayne Works maintained a prominent share of the market throughout the Depression, Albert Luce Sr., owner of two Ford dealerships in Georgia, was innovating his own bus. Beginning in 1925, Luce first attached a wooden body to a truck frame, but the invention threatened to fall apart as it rattled on unpaved rural roads, so Luce added a steel frame beneath the wooden body, providing stability. Still, safety remained a problem, and in 1935, a number of school bus accidents convinced Luce he needed to start using all-steel bodies. By the early 1940s, Luce’s company, Blue Bird, had become a prolific bus manufacturer. Though Wayne Works is out of business, Blue Bird is alive and well, billing itself as the leading U.S. manufacturer of school buses, having sold 550,000 since 1927. (Many say Wayne Works was the first to develop the steel frame, though others quibble, and Blue Bird’s inaugural bus sits in the Henry Ford Museum as the oldest surviving school bus.)

But national standards were still lacking, a problem recognized by Frank Cyr, a teacher who spent his career in various rural public schools, in Nebraska and beyond. In 1937, Cyr conducted a study of school conveyances, from trucks to buses and even those old-fashioned wagons. Two years later, at the first conference dedicated to improving school buses, Cyr hung paint samples on the wall and tapped a small group of attendees to choose a uniform color for U.S. school buses. The winner was the bright yellow we know today; it was deemed the easiest color on which to read the vehicles’ black lettering in the early morning light, and therefore best for safety. The color, first known as National School Bus Chrome, was later dubbed National School Bus Glossy Yellow and is, technically, Color 13432. Federal law does not explicitly mandate that school buses be painted yellow but does recommend the practice as a matter of safety. And while buses have changed a lot on the inside—those side-facing benches became front-facing, for one thing—the exterior of the American school bus has remained much the same since 1939.

Long a vehicle for equality of access to education, school buses became a tool against racial inequality following the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared segregated public schools unconstitutional, and the school bus became a symbol of integration—in some places. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter recalls how in Georgia, in response to Brown v. Board, the state legislature recommended that school buses carrying Black children paint their front fenders black, a clear and grim expression of rebellion against integrationists.

And now the yellow bus is about to go green. The American School Bus Council estimates that over 25 million schoolchildren ride more than 480,000 school buses each day, making school buses the largest mass transit system in America. As of last year, fewer than 1,200 of those buses were electric, but with a $5 billion investment from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, that number could rise to 10,000 by 2026. Ever since Virginia added 50 electric buses to its fleet in 2020, the commonwealth has already saved more than half a million pounds of carbon emissions. Patrick McManamon, president of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, says the new buses will fulfill a historic role.  “The future of buses,” McManamon says, “is the future of American children.”

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This article is a selection from the September issue of Smithsonian magazine