The term “livery company” is used in two different contexts. In the first context, a livery company is a trade association in the City of London which has its origins in the ancient merchant guilds of that city; as of 2008, there are 108 livery companies in London, most of which have titles which start with “The Worshipful Company of.” In the second sense, a livery company is a facility which keeps vehicles for hire, stemming from the livery stables which were used to house horses historically.
In both senses, the origins of the word “livery” are the same. Livery is a term which is used to describe various symbolic items used to identify a person or object as belonging to a particular household, group, or company. For example, a liveried servant would wear a uniform which identifies the house in which he or she works, while a livery car would have insignia indicating which company it belongs to.
In the case of the London livery companies, each company was officially recognized as a guild and granted livery by the Crown. Livery companies historically oversaw the professional standards in their industries, ensuring that all of the products of their members adhered to a certain standard, and protecting the rights of workers. Some London livery companies continue to fill a regulatory position, while others are more generally expanded to behave more like trade associations, with specific benefits available to their members, and some act as charitable organizations.
In the sense of a facility which maintains vehicles for hire, the first livery company was, of course, a livery stable. Historically, livery stables maintained fleets of horses and associated equipment for people who wanted to rent them, and they also offered care and lodging for horses of travelers, for a small fee. By tradition, the horses and carriages associated with each livery stable were bedecked in the livery of that stable, making them easy to identify.
A modern livery company may have boats, cars, bicycles, planes, or other forms of transportation for rent, all of which bear the emblems of the livery company. A livery company may be public, allowing anyone to rent the transportation it offers, or private, in the case of a corporate livery, which provides transport to employees of a specific company. Many taxicab companies are also considered to be livery companies, as each cab bears insignia which identifies the company it belongs to.