01 Jun Why I Bought a 115-year-old Bicycle
I spent Memorial Day at a country auction. I’m a sucker for a country auction, especially one situated in the midst of rolling corn fields like yesterday’s, because it seems to guarantee that I’ll find a bargain. This auction advertised the sale of an old bicycle, called the Apollo, made by the Edward K. Tryon Company of Philadelphia. A quick internet search told me Tryon was the oldest sporting goods company in America, did business from 1811-1936, and sold guns, fishing tackle, and bicycles. One of the last things the company made, in 1935, was a Buck Rogers football that looked like a rocket ship. Their Apollo bike was the companion to the Vesper, their woman’s model, and was made in 1895. The popularity of bicycles in the 1890s was equivalent to the popularity of cars in the 1960s.
Thanks to 1) the invention of pneumatic tires, 2) steel bicycle frames (much sturdier than the original wood frames) and 3) a low profile design that allowed man, woman, or child to mount a bike easily (as opposed to the old high-wheel style that necessitated a ladder), biking became a sensation in the 1890s. Baltimore had no fewer than eight bicycle clubs at that time. Thumb through any late-1890’s issue of The Ladies Home Journal, the most popular women’s magazine of the decade, and you will see dozens of bicycle and bike accessory ads. One shows a woman phoning her chauffeur to tell him to bring around her bicycle instead of the carriage, after which the chauffeur muses: “This do beat all. The madam bought a Waverley Belle from the Indiana Bicycle Co. . . . for $75. and now she uses it ten times as much for her morning rides as she does her carriage and horses that cost $2500.”
But get this: the Victorian bike was such a new invention that it had not occurred to manufacturers to equip the thing with brakes. You will find all manner of biking accessories in the pages of, say, the Sears catalogue, everything from “tourists’ cases” to trouser clips for bike riders, but no brakes. Ironically, we have come full circle because today’s quintessential city bike — actually a track bike with a single gear and NO brakes — is again all the rage. Apparently pedaling without brakes in city traffic tests the rider’s wiles and reflexes. When all else fails, you apply your foot to the back of the front tire. Good luck.
Despite the high price of the late Victorian bicycle — which could cost $25 to $100, amounting to one-tenth the average annual paycheck — the bicycle was a good investment since it could last a lifetime and replace a horse or trolley in the worker’s daily commute. As the average commuter would make about 172 trolley trips annually at a dime each, a bicycle would pay for itself after only a few years. That’s probably why the Monarch Bicycle Company, just one of many, sold 50,000 bikes in 1896. Said one observer in 1899: “The ordinary ‘horseless carriage’ is at present a luxury for the wealthy; and although its price will probably fall in the future, it will never, of course, come into as common use as the bicycle.”
The sudden growth of biking led to road reform — the end of cobblestone and the advent of smooth pavement — well before the demand created by drivers of the automobile, which didn’t enter the marketplace until 1896 (the same year that saw the country’s first automobile accident). Because the bicycle in America has long been reduced to a recreational toy, we forget that bicycle shops were critically important in developing and popularizing early motorized transportation: bike shops attracted the era’s best mechanics who began to manufacture some of the first motorcycles, automobiles, and more. The Wright brothers were bicycle mechanics, you may remember. In short, the Victorian bicycle was a technological revolution that made good roads and motorized transportation of every kind feasible.
But there’s more! The Victorian bike also advanced women’s independence — it allowed them to possess something of their own (men didn’t ride women’s bikes), it got them out of the house (if they were middle class or higher), and it allowed them vigorous exercise at a time when there was much debate about whether women should ride horses at a gallop (they were admonished to ride side-saddle, don’t forget). A woman on a bike was a bold image and could well be the defining symbol of the women’s rights movement.
Pretty cool, huh? So, yeah, I bought the Apollo at the auction. Cost me $95. I want to give this piece of history a home. But I’m not going to mothball it. I’m going to put it on the street again, with new tires, re-spoked wheels, and a tune-up (but leave the original, now-funky paint intact) and be amazed every time this ancient vehicle takes me from here to there.