What color is an Amish buggy? If someone asked you that, what would your answer be?
Odds are you’d first think either black or gray, the two most prevalent hues. But as you may know, those aren’t the only Amish buggy-top colors.
Here are the five colors of Amish buggies (listed from most common to least), and a little background on each color:
The Five Amish Buggy Colors
Black is by far the most common buggy color.
It’s used by Amish from many different affiliations–from the various groups in Holmes County, Ohio and northern Indiana, to those in Buchanan County, Iowa, to the Renno Amish of central Pennsylvania, to the Dover, Delaware churches, to the tiny Kokomo, Indiana affiliation.
The same color doesn’t mean these buggies share the same design or shape, however. This becomes apparent when you compare, say, boxy Renno buggies with angly Indiana-style buggies or curvy Dover buggies.
The familiar graphite hue is used by Lancaster County Amish and those of its sister settlements. The Lancaster churches comprise the largest Amish affiliation, of around 300 congregations in eight states.
Why gray? The color has apparently evolved over time. Stephen Scott, author of Plain Buggies: Amish, Mennonite, and Brethren Horse-Drawn Transportation, writes that in 1860, Phoebe Earle Gibbons described the Lancaster buggy covering as “yellow oilcloth”.
Benjamin Hoover, an Old Order Mennonite deacon born in 1874, states that the Amish buggies of his childhood “were about half yellow and half gray”. Another writer noted in 1911 that “the yellow of the oilcloth has disappeared, lead color having taken its place” (quotes from Plain Buggies, p. 51).
Yellow tops have remained in one group, however, which we’ll see a little further down this list.
The color might also be called “burnt orange”, or “dark yellow-brown” as Stephen Scott describes it (p. 58).
The Amish in New Wilmington originated from Mifflin County (Big Valley area) and are related to the Byler Amish of that community (they are even referred to as “Byler Amish” in some sources; see New York Amish), though their buggies are of a different hue.
Why the odd color? As with a lot of Amish customs, the “whys” can be difficult to answer.
In the Pennsylvania Amish Directory of the Lawrence County Settlement (2003), Eli J. Byler speculates that “this custom must have come from Mifflin Co. into Lawrence, and to all other settlements that originated from Lawrence Co” (p. 3).
Stephen Scott has another suggestion: “This color approaches the color commonly seen on circus tents and perhaps the Amish obtained this same type of canvas for their tops many years ago” (Plain Buggies, p. 58).
We don’t know for sure if that’s correct. But I like the irony of circus tent canvas possibly adorning buggies of one of the plainest Amish groups.
White buggies are used by the Nebraska Amish, numbering around 20 congregations in total.
This conservative group is found in Pennsylvania (main settlement in Mifflin County), Ohio, and a fledgling community in New York state.
If you find the name puzzling, the “Nebraska” tag comes from the home state of an early leader.
These very plain buggies have no storm front (like the windshield on a car), so technically are only partially enclosed.
Interestingly, Stephen Scott notes due to the mounting of the step plate on this buggy, it’s necessary to enter from the front rather than the side, “a feature that carriages of other Pennsylvania plain people had early in this century [20th]” (p. 55).
Another interesting point: it is–or at least was–possible to see a white-topped buggy in a non-Nebraska settlement.
The New Wilmington group apparently uses a buggy called a “peddle wagon”, with a white plywood top and black sliding door and box (photo on p. 59 of Plain Buggies).
I’ve never noticed one on my visits to that community, but I’m assuming this is still something you can see among the New Wilmington people.
The most unlikely of Amish buggy colors, the striking lemon-topped vehicles of the Byler churches, mainly in Mifflin County, Pennsylvania’s Big Valley settlement, are hard to miss.
This is the rarest of carriage hues, with only five church districts in this affiliation as of 2012 (see The Amish, p 139).
Note: As reader Mark points out in the comments below, the single-district Enon Valley, PA church also uses a shade of yellow (though different from the Byler Amish top), described as a “pale yellow”.
Where did the Byler Amish yellow come from? Stephen Scott shares two theories. One Amish person suggested that white paint on early carriages turned yellow, which eventually led to people simply painting the tops that shade.
A second theory is that early tops were made from unbleached oilcloth–the same kind once used for raincoats–which had a pale yellow tone (Plain Buggies, p. 56).
To be sure, this is an unforgettable color, and in a culture that values plainness, a little surprising to see. But it’s a custom that’s been around a long time.
So there you have the five Amish buggy colors.
There is of course a sixth buggy-top color, and that is “transparent” or “invisible”. That can be “seen” in the Swiss Amish churches, who for the most part use only open-top vehicles.
Images: black Indiana buggies: ShipshewanaIndiana; Lancaster buggies: Karen Starkey/flickr