Bicycling’s Golden Age

“When the spirits are low,
when the day appears dark,
when work becomes monotonous,
when hope hardly seems worth having,
just mount a bicycle and go out
for a spin down the road,
without thought on anything
but the ride you are taking.”
Arthur Conan Doyle

Bike Poster 1890s

Victor, Victoria bicycles Overman Wheel Co., 1896. Artist: Will Bradley

During the turn of the century, the modern bicycle sparked a nation-wide bicycle craze. Zeal for this new two-wheeled vehicle became especially popular in Southern California. With California’s ideal year-round weather conditions, this new healthy outdoor activity attracted both young and old as well as men and women.

Enthusiasts organized group rides across the Southland, formed local bicycle clubs, and lobbied for the construction of bicycle roads.

bicycles-come-to-california

LA Times Bicycle Club members ride north on Western Avenue toward Hollywood. Circa 1894

The most famous bicycle route was the California Cycleway, an elevated bikeway extending from the historic Los Angeles Plaza to Pasadena’s Hotel Green. Made of Oregon pine, the cycleway had easy grades, sparing cyclists from the hilly terrain between the two cities.

california-cyclewayA one-and-a-quarter-mile stretch of the privately financed cycleway, pictured here, opened in 1897 between the Hotel Green and South Pasadena’s Raymond Hotel.

Unfortunately, by 1910 the cycleway had fallen into disuse. Its full route to Los Angeles was never completed. Today, the Arroyo Seco Parkway uses much of the California Cycleway’s original right-of-way.

Another popular cycling corridor lay between Los Angeles and the town of Hollywood. The Los Angeles Times Bicycle Club organized runs along the route, whose unpaved roads eventually became our modern-day, traffic-choked boulevards.

With cycling becoming more and more popular, the beach community of Santa Monica with the help of The Southern Pacific Railroad, built the “Santa Monica Cycle Path”. The 1896 photograph below, shows the beginning of the bike path which later extended to Downtown Los Angeles.

sm-bike-path

Santa Monica to Los Angeles cycle path @ 1896

Meanwhile in the Northern California town of Davis, the high-wheel bicycle was making a surge. Because the agricultural land around the City of Davis is flat and the climate is relatively mild year-round, riding a bicycle became the mode of transportation and an easy way to get around town.

University of California students have been coming to Davis since 1908 and bicycling has always been an important part of their campus experience. After the city incorporated in 1917, the increasing number of paved roads encouraged local citizens to take up cycling.

Due to rapid growth of the university and the city, traffic conflicts between bikes and vehicles were increasing throughout the 20th century. After acknowledging that the well-educated and well-traveled citizenry would be receptive to European-style bikeways, the Davis City Council decided in 1967 to create a few short blocks of bicycle lanes. As a result, Davis became the first city in the United States to install official city bicycle lanes.

1900 bike pathThe combined system of bicycle lanes and dedicated bike paths today reaches well over 100 miles in a small town that is only about 11 square miles. Davis has become a model for hundreds of U.S. cities because of its safe, integrated bicycle transportation network. The UC Davis campus has developed its own extensive bicycle path system and support programs.

Many remaining high-wheelers were collected during scrap metal drives during the Great War of 1914–18, making the few remaining machines valuable and highly desired collectibles today, as well as nostalgic reminders of bicycling’s Golden Age.

Shine On


To learn more about the history of bicycles, visit the Bicycle Hall of Fame in Davis, California. Follow the link below:

US Bicycling Hall of Fame

 

Bicycles in America

“Life is like riding a bicycle.
To keep your balance
you must keep moving.”
Albert Einstein

 

WK Clarkson

W. K. Clarkson, Jr.

 

Almost simultaneously across the Atlantic in the United States, while the Baron built his cherry tree wood and softwood Draisine, W. K. Clarkson, Jr. of New York, was granted a patent for a velocipede on June 26, 1819. Unfortunately, the records for the patent were destroyed in a fire at the Patent Office in 1836 and we no longer know what this patent covered.

There is no evidence that bicycling gained much popularity in the U.S. at the time. However, around 1863 in Paris, Pierre Michaux played an important part in velocipede development when in his workshop Pierre added pedals to the front axle. To this day it’s not certain whether he or his employee Pierre Lallement is entitled to the credit.

Lallement moved to New Haven Connecticut, and in 1866 he was granted a patent for improvements in velocipedes. Then in 1868, the Hanlon brothers of New York, improved Lallement’s vehicle.

Americans began to show an immense enthusiasm for the velocipede in 1868. By early 1869, a number of carriage builders were making cycles. Numerous riding schools were established in many eastern cities, and the sport of riding became suddenly popular, especially among the students of Harvard and Yale Universities. The craze ended as suddenly as it began. By the end of May in 1869 bicycling was a dying sport.

The reasons for the decline was because the cycles were heavy and cumbersome. There was no cushioning and the rider had to steer and pedal the same front wheel. Riding a velocipede took a great deal of strength and coordination. Cities also began to pass ordinances against riding on pedestrian sidewalks. Further use and development in the United States remained nearly at a standstill during the 1870s.

By the late 1870s, bicycles and tricycles using wire-spoked wheels were commonly seen, notably in England. James Starley of Coventry introduced the Ariel in 1871, a high-wheeled bicycle with wire spokes that was copied for two decades. This type of cycle, with modifications, gained popularity and later became known as an “Ordinary”.

columbia-bicycleAmericans again became interested in bicycles, and began importing machines from England. Albert A. Pope became the first American bicycle manufacturer. In 1878 he began manufacturing bicycles under the trade name “Columbia” in Connecticut.

Twenty years after the success of the Columbia, the American Bicycle Company was founded by Albert Augustus Pope. Shortly after, Pope incorporated the American Bicycle Company on May 12, 1899.

In 1898, the U.S. bicycle industry was caught in a downward spiral of market saturation, over-supply and intense price competition. In an attempt to control supply and limit competition, 42 manufacturers (later over 75 companies) formed the American Bicycle Company and soon afterwards announced plans to open a branch plant in Canada called the National Cycle Company.

American Bicycle later bought the Gormully & Jeffery Manufacturing Company which made Rambler brand bicycles. Rambler bicycle was obtained in 1900 after Thomas B. Jeffery sold it to focus on the Rambler automobile.

Bicycles began to evolve more and more. The Ordinary, or high-wheel bicycle as it is currently called, was light weight and fast. But it was also hazardous, since the rider’s center of gravity was only slightly behind the large front wheel and the rider was in danger of taking what came to be called a “header”—flying over the handlebars.

Ordinary BikesBecause of the Ordinary’s inherent danger, efforts were made to design a safer bicycle. Some people tried to modify the Ordinary to make it safer, others put their efforts into redesigning the bicycle. The latter path won out as “Safety” bicycles became more popular. These cycles had two small wheels of equal size, a chain driver, and gears. Soon after the advent of the Safety bicycle, John Boyd Dunlop patented a pneumatic tire (in both England and the United States). Brakes were also improved in the 1890s.

The number of bicycles in use boomed as production rose from an estimated 200,000 bicycles in 1889 to 1,000,000 in 1899 as popularity skyrocketed for bicycles in America.

Shine On

read about, Bicycling’s Golden Age

The Baron Drais

“A wheeled vehicle without a horse
is a thing so preposterous to the eyes of
aldermen that it must be forbidden altogether.”
The New York Herald Article
circa 1800

first-bike 1800s

The Baron’s Laufmaschine displayed at the Kurpfälzisches Museum
in Heidelberg, Germany

Early in 1817 the Baron built out of cherry tree wood and softwood a “running machine”, which he called a Draisine or a Laufmaschine. The machine was more pony-sized than horse-sized so that the riders feet reached the ground for propulsion.

This early bicycle consisted of a saddle seat, handlebars and a steerable front wheel. Testing and improving it throughout the next few years, the Baron finished his invention and patented the running machine in January of 1818.

Almost overnight the Baron’s Laufmaschine became a sensation. News of the running machine spread westward across Europe. Enthusiasm grew among a small circle of young aristocratic men known as “dandies”. Demonstrating one’s manly abilities was key for “dandies”, and the Laufmaschine was a novelty too challenging and exciting for any dandy to pass up.

Draisine bike 1817The Laufmaschine name was a bit foreign to British, so they renamed it the “dandy horse”. Before long, every young gentleman who aspired to the dandy ideal owned a dandy horse. A basic dandy horse in 1818 cost the equivalent of about $900 in today’s money, which made it a rather expensive plaything. The best of these were constructed by carriage builders; the more crude ones were cobbled together by blacksmiths.

As quickly as it appeared, the dandy horse disappeared. By 1820, the price of oats was back down to pre-1815 levels, and horses were readily available to those who could afford them. It wouldn’t be until the mid-1860s that someone had the idea to put pedals on the front wheel of a dandy horse, giving it an improved means of locomotion, as well as a scrub brake for the rear wheel; an improvement for stopping one from crashing it into a hedge.

So, what happened to the Baron Drais?  He went on to also invent the earliest typewriter with a keyboard (1821). He later developed an early stenograph machine which used 16 characters (1827), a device to record piano music on paper (1812), the first meat grinder, and a wood-saving cooker including the earliest hay chest.

The Baron had the misfortune to belong to the losing political party when the Prussians took over Baden, and had his title and property stripped. At age 66, on December 10, 1851, he died penniless and forgotten. 

Without the Baron’s aristocratic plaything he invented, the history of the bicycle might have been very different, and certainly less colorful without the creative endeavors of the Baron Drais.

Shine On

read about, Bicycles in America

Ancestor of all Bicycles

“Truly, the bicycle is the
most influential piece of
product design ever.”
Hugh Pearman

 

mount-tambora-indonesia

1815 Eruption of Mount Tambora, Indonesia

It was the early-18th century in Western Europe when man first began experimenting with human-powered vehicles. In the beginning, these vehicles consisted of four or more wheels and could accommodate up to seven passengers. Much different than carts or carriages, they had handles or ropes for men on foot to push or pull. They were attempts at replacing horses with humans.

Even back in the 1800s, the purchase of a horse was expensive for the working man. No fit and wealthy gentleman would be without a horse for pleasure riding. They usually had horses for drawing carriages, but most affluent European men owned horses for leisure riding.

That all changed in 1815 when the world was thrown into turmoil. A turmoil not from a war or an economic crisis, but because of a small island over six thousand miles from Europe in the South Pacific.

On April 10, 1815, halfway between Asia and Australia, Mount Tambora erupted in Indonesia. It was to become the largest volcanic explosion in recorded history as well as claiming the most fatalities. Mount Tambora’s eruption killed well over 71,000 of its people. This once silent volcano erupted with the power equivalent to 1,000 atomic explosions, blasting about 38 cubic miles of ash, pumice and other matter into the atmosphere.

Ashes reflected the sun’s light and cooled the earth’s surface. Temperatures dropped below freezing in July from Mexico to Vienna. Unexpected snowstorms and rainstorms brought travel to a stop. Farms and grain stores were washed away. Crops failed. Livestock died by the tens of thousands. The world was gripped by the worst famine in a century, and infectious diseases such as typhus was rampant. The year 1816 would become known as “the year without a summer.”

karl-wilhelm-friedrich-christian-ludwig-drais

Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Christian Ludwig Drais

With all the soot and ash engulfing Europe, there was one ray of hope to this gloomy disaster. He was a 31-year-old aristocrat, an expert in forestry, an enthusiastic and passionate horseman as well as an avid inventor from Baden, Germany. His name was Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Christian Ludwig Drais, otherwise known as Baron Drais von Sauerbronn. Baron Drais’ beloved horses died from environmental causes from the volcano eruption, and set the Baron on a journey to invent the bicycle.

It’s not known for sure what the impetus was for the Baron to think about the problems confronting the horses, and how those factors affected gentlemen who rode for pleasure. But somehow, his grief from losing his horses, led him to thinking about the basic form of the horse and its accommodations for a rider. He began with experimenting with a wooden and wrought iron frame and a pair of carriage wheels in tandem. The result would be recognized by anyone today as, the ancestor of all bicycles.

Shine On

read more about, The Baron Drais

The Story of Schwinn

“Schwinn bikes are the best”.
Captain Kangaroo

 

Schwiin Bikes

The story of Schwinn began when cycling in America was skyrocketing in popularity. The Schwinn Bicycle Company was founded by German-born mechanical engineer Ignaz Schwinn (1860-1945) in Chicago on October 22, 1895.

At one-point Schwinn was about as American as apple pie. It is by far the most well-known American bicycle manufacturer and many older models are highly sought after by collectors. The company was helmed by someone with the last name Schwinn for 97 years.

I Schwinn

Ignaz Schwinn 1860 to 1948

Ignaz Schwinn was born in Hardheim, Baden, Germany in 1860 and worked on two-wheeled ancestors of the modern bicycle that appeared in 19th century Europe. Schwinn emigrated to the United States in 1891, where he found similar difficulties.

In 1895, with the financial backing of fellow German American Adolph Arnold (a meat packer), he started the Arnold, Schwinn & Company. Schwinn’s new company coincided with a sudden bicycle craze in America. Chicago became the center of the American bicycle industry, with thirty factories turning out thousands of bikes every day. Bicycle output in the United States grew to over a million units per year by the turn of the century.

The bicycle boom was short-lived, as automobiles and motorcycles quickly replaced bikes on American streets. By 1905, bicycle annual sales had fallen to only 25% of that reached in 1900. Many smaller companies were absorbed by larger firms or went bankrupt; in Chicago, only twelve bicycle makers remained in business. Competition became intense, both for parts suppliers and for contracts from the major department stores, which retailed the majority of bicycles produced in those days. Realizing he needed to grow the company, Ignaz Schwinn purchased several smaller bicycle firms, building a modern factory on Chicago’s west side to mass-produce bicycles at lower cost. He finalized a purchase of Excelsior Motorcycle Company in 1912, and in 1917 added the Henderson Company to form Excelsior-Henderson. In an atmosphere of general decline elsewhere in the industry, Schwinn’s new motorcycle division thrived, and by 1928 was in third place behind Indian and Harley-Davidson.

At the close of the 1920s, the stock market crash decimated the American motorcycle industry, taking Excelsior-Henderson with it. Arnold, Schwinn, & Co. (as it remained until 1967) was on the verge of bankruptcy. With no buyers, Excelsior-Henderson motorcycles were discontinued in 1931.

schwinn aerocycle

1934 Schwinn Aerocycle

 

Ignaz’ son, Frank W. “F.W.” Schwinn, took over day-to-day operations at Schwinn. Putting all company efforts towards bicycles, he succeeded in developing a low-cost model that brought Schwinn recognition as an innovative company, as well as a product that would continue to sell during the inevitable downturns in business cycles.

After traveling to Europe to get ideas, F.W. Schwinn returned to Chicago and in 1933 introduced the Schwinn B-10E Motorbike, actually a youth’s bicycle designed to imitate a motorcycle. The company revised the model the next year and renamed it the Aerocycle. For the Aerocycle, F.W. Schwinn persuaded American Rubber Co. to make 2.125-inch-wide (54.0 mm) balloon tires, while adding streamlined fenders, an imitation ‘gas tank’, a streamlined, chrome-plated headlight, and a push-button bell. The bicycle would eventually come to be known as a paperboy bike or cruiser, and soon became an industry standard as other makers rushed to produce imitations.

1939 schwinn paramountracer

Schwinn was soon sponsoring a bicycle racing team headed by Emil Wastyn, who designed the team bikes, and the company competed in 6-day races across the United States with riders such as Jerry Rodman and Russell Allen. In 1938, F. W. Schwinn officially introduced the Paramount series. Developed from experiences gained in racing, Schwinn established Paramount as their answer to high-end, professional competitive bicycles. The Paramount used high-strength steel chromoly alloy tubing and expensive brass lug-brazed construction. During the next twenty years, most of the Paramount bikes would be built in limited numbers at a small frame shop headed by Wastyn, in spite of Schwinn’s continued efforts to bring all frame production into the factory.

On 17 May 1941, Alfred Letourneur was able to beat the motor-paced world speed record on a bicycle, reaching 175 km/h (109 mph) on a Schwinn bicycle riding behind a car on the Los Angeles freeway.

By 1950, Schwinn had decided the time was right to grow the brand. At the time, most bicycle manufacturers in the United States sold in bulk to department stores, which in turn sold them as store brand models. Schwinn decided to try something different. With the exception of B.F. Goodrich bicycles, sold in tire stores, Schwinn eliminated the practice of rebranding in 1950, insisting that the Schwinn brand and guarantee appear on all products. Schwinn was famous for their quality bikes and their advertisement campaign stressed the fact that their bikes “ride better…last longer…cost less in the long run”. They even had a Guarantee with no-time-limit. In today’s world, you can’t even get a guarantee, let alone with no-time-limit. They guaranteed against all defects in material and workmanship and would replace without charge any original part that was defective.

schwinnguaranteelogo

In exchange for ensuring the presence of the Schwinn name, distributors retained the right to distribute Schwinn bikes to any hardware store, toy store, or bicycle shop that ordered them. In 1952, F.W. Schwinn tasked a new team to plan future business strategy, consisting of marketing supervisor Ray Burch, general manager Bill Stoeffhaas, and design supervisor Al Fritz.

In the 1950s, Schwinn began to aggressively cultivate bicycle retailers, persuading them to sell Schwinn’s as their predominant, if not exclusive brand. During this period, bicycle sales enjoyed relatively slow growth, with the bulk of sales going to youth models. In 1900, during the height of the first bicycle boom, annual U.S. sales by all bicycle manufacturers had briefly topped one million. By 1960, annual sales had reached 4.4 million. Nevertheless, Schwinn’s share of the market was increasing, and would reach in excess of one million bicycles per year by the end of the decade.

1950hornetschwinn

1950 Schwinn Hornet

The postwar appearance of imported ‘English racers’ (actually 3-speed ‘sport’ roadsters from Great Britain and West Germany) found a ready market among U.S. buyers seeking bicycles for exercise and recreation in the suburbs. Though substantially heavier than later European-style ‘racer’ or sport/touring bikes, Americans found them a revelation, as they were still much lighter than existing models produced by Schwinn and other American bicycle manufacturers. Imports of foreign-made ‘English racers’, sports roadsters, and recreational bicycles steadily increased through the early 1950s. Schwinn first responded to the new challenge by producing its own middleweight version of the ‘English racer’. The middleweight incorporated most of the features of the English racer, but had wider tires and wheels.

The company also joined with other U.S. bicycle manufacturers in a campaign to raise tariffs across the board on all imported bicycles. In August 1955, the Eisenhower administration implemented a 22.5% tariff rate for three out of four categories of bicycles. However, the most popular adult category, lightweight or ‘racer’ bicycles, were only raised to 11.25%. The administration noted that the U.S. industry offered no direct competition in this category, and that lightweight bikes competed only indirectly with balloon-tire or cruiser bicycles. The share of the US market taken by foreign-made bicycles dropped to 28.5% of the market, and remained under 30% through 1964. Despite the increased tariff, the only structural change in foreign imports during this period was a temporary decline in bicycles imported from Great Britain in favor of lower-priced models from Holland and Germany. In 1961, after a successful appeal by bicycle importers, the Eisenhower tariffs were declared invalid by the Court of U.S. Customs Appeals, and President Kennedy imposed new a new tariff rate at 50% on foreign-made bicycles, a rate which remained in place until 1964.

1955schwinnpahtom

1955 Schwinn Phantom

While every large bicycle manufacturer sponsored or participated in bicycle racing competition of some sort to keep up with the newest trends in technology, Schwinn had restricted its racing activities to events inside the US, where Schwinn bicycles predominated. As a result, Schwinn’s became increasingly dated in both styling and technology. By 1957, the Paramount series, once a premier racing bike, had atrophied from a lack of attention and modernization. Aside from some new frame lug designs, the designs, methods and tooling were the same as had been used in the 1930s. After a crash-course in new frame-building techniques and derailleur technology, Schwinn introduced an updated Paramount with Reynolds 531 double-butted tubing, Nervex lug sets and bottom bracket shells as well as Campagnolo derailleur dropouts. The Paramount continued as a limited production model, built in small numbers in a small apportioned area of the old Chicago assembly factory. The new frame and component technology incorporated in the Paramount largely failed to reach Schwinn’s mass-market bicycle lines. Another change occurred in 1963 following the death of F.W. Schwinn, when grandson Frank Valentine Schwinn took over management of the company.

By the late 1950s, Schwinn’s exclusive marketing practices were well entrenched in the United States, practices that had ensured a dominant position in the US bicycle market. In order to prevent competition among its wholesalers, Schwinn assisted them by dividing up the national market. Schwinn also strengthened its dealer network, shrinking the number of authorized dealers. Since Schwinn could decide who got their bikes and who didn’t, the company rewarded the highest volume dealers with location exclusivity, as well as mandating service standards and layouts. In response, the company was sued by the Department of Justice in 1957 for restraint of trade. In a ten-year legal battle, many of Schwinn’s practices were upheld by the courts: judges ruled they had the right to have their bicycles sold by retailers equipped to service the bikes as well as sell them. However, in a ruling by the US Supreme Court in 1967, U.S. v. Arnold, Schwinn & Co., Schwinn was found guilty of restraint of trade by preventing distributors shipping bicycles to unapproved dealers. Though the Arnold decision would be essentially overturned in later rulings, the company stopped working solely through independent local distributors and constructed four regional warehouses from which bicycles would—legally—be sent to shops. While this solved the problem of unfair trade practice with the courts, the new warehouses and distribution system cost millions of dollars at a time of rising competition from foreign manufacturers. It also made it more difficult for the company to stay informed of customer complaints regarding manufacturing or assembly problems.

captkangaroo ad

During the 1960s, Schwinn aggressively campaigned to retain and expand its dominance of the child and youth bicycle markets. The company advertised heavily on television, and was an early sponsor (from 1958) of the children’s television program, Captain Kangaroo. The Captain himself was enlisted to regularly hawk Schwinn-brand bicycles to the show’s audience, typically six years old and under. As these children matured, it was believed they would ask for Schwinn bicycles from their parents. By 1971, U.S. government councils had objected to Schwinn’s marketing practices. In response, Schwinn had Captain Kangaroo alter its format. The Captain no longer insisted that viewers buy a Schwinn, but instead made regular on-air consultations of a new character, ‘Mr. Schwinn Dealer’.

stingraychange

The Sting-Ray, known as “the bike with the sports car look,” revolutionized cycling since its introduction by Schwinn in 1963. It won the praise and captured the imagination of young people of all ages across the USA. This was the fun bike that featured a short frame, high rise handlebars and long, bucket shaped saddle, known as the banana seat. This design gave the rider an exciting combination of features for quick maneuvers, fast starts and short radius turns.

By 1969, Schwinn offered several Sting-Ray models for young guys and gals to choose from. One of the styles that was offered for young gals was the Schwinn Fair Lady model. In their 1969 Schwinn brochure, they wrote about the Fair Lady as being fresh, stylish and fun!

myfairlady

The low-contour middleweight frame is easy to get on and off. It came complete with a flower-trimmed basket, Sting-Ray handlebars, comfortable Silver Glow saddle, and chrome plated fenders. The tires were Schwinn tubular rims, 20″ x 1 3/4″ front tire, slick rear tire, and the famous Schwinn built-in kickstand.  The colors offered were, Campus Green, Sky Blue, and Violet.  The Fair Lady sold for $49.95.

Shine On

read about the history of the bike at, Ancestor of all Bicycles