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The Great Bicycle Delirium

May 2024
2min read

The man on the preceding page is mounted on a bicycle made by Colonel Albert A. Pope. An ex-soldier and shoe manufacturer, Pope spent a good deal of time at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition pondering an English “ordinary” (large front wheel, small back wheel). After the show he commissioned a mechanic to build him a bicycle on the English model. The result—a seventy-pound behemoth costing $313—was probably the first real bicycle built in America. Pope saw vast possibilities in the unwieldy machine and forever abandoned the manufacture of shoes. But building a bicycle and finding somebody to buy it were two different things, and Pope had to set about winning over the public. He fought his way through a cloud of patent-infringement suits, published the first cyclist’s handbook in 1881, offered cash prizes to doctors who would write persuasive tracts about the physical benefits of cycling, established a nationwide chain of agencies to sell his “Columbia” at a fixed price, and promoted cycling clubs. One of the first of these organizations, the Springfield Bicycle Club, held its inaugural meet in 1883 (right). Many of those high-wheelers in the poster are undoubtedly from Pope’s well-run factory. The machines were not cheap—$100 to $150—but they sold, well at first and then fabulously. By 1890 the safety bicycle with its two identical wheels and chain drive had brought riders closer to the ground and minimized the danger of serious spills. Once it was on the market, the fad became a rage. All through the depression years of the mid-nineties hundreds of thousands of people scraped together enough money to buy cycles. The craze hit right in the middle of the great era of American chromolithography, and so we have some wonderfully vivid mementos of it. Some of the pictures in the following portfolio are bicycle advertisements, but many are not. Nothing can give a clearer indication of the scope of our infatuation with the bicycle than the fact that for a few years its image was used to sell such unrelated items as cigars and reed organs. Just as the “Atomic Diners” that still exist in most fair-sized towns suggest a major interest of the late forties, so these advertisements summon up for us the chief attraction of the last decade of the nineteenth century. The bicycle delirium had all but burned out by 1900. Those with foresight might have read an augury in the fact that at a cycle exhibition in Madison Square Garden in 1899, Colonel Pope proudly displayed an automobile built in his Columbia Bicycle Works. So Pope took up the production of majestic touring cars, and two Ohio bicycle mechanics named Wright built a flying machine, and the new century turned to more spectacular means of transportation, leaving behind it these gaudy and evocative posters.



Zimmerman, the dismembered gentleman above, was one of (he most popular bicycle racers of the early nineties. In ’93 he won twenty thousand dollars in prizes. “Zimmie” was really an ardent amateur—his idea of training was to carouse all night—and by the end of the decade he had been edged out by professionals like Midget Michael, who slept eleven hours a night and woke to ride forty to fifty miles in order to “get up a good sweat.” Men like Midget Michael earned their living by racing, but everybody else seemed to want to get into the act. “Road Queen” cigars used the brilliant box label at left center; the Weaver Organ & Piano Company sought business by distributing the trade cards at right center; and schoolboys were spurred to excellence by the promise of rewards of merit like the one. below left, showing a boy pedalling an ordinary that appears to be made out of ostrich eggs. For little girls there was the demure paper doll at right bottom. The zippy ladies at top right adorn trade cards, and the buttons on the opposite page were distributed by some of the more than five hundred companies that were then turning out bicycles.


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