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Monday, July 22

Gapers Block

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This week's topic was suggested by Brian. Thanks!

In the late nineteenth century, the country experienced an explosion in the popularity of bicycles. But nowhere was this surge more felt than in Chicago, as the city became the bicycle manufacturing capital of the U.S.

Historians still debate over who really holds the title of the inventor of the bicycle. There was even a controversial bicycle drawing attributed to Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci that was loudly denounced as a forgery. Frenchman Ernest Michaux, however, is credited with developing the modern bicycle pedal and cranks around 1861.

The first early bicycle to hit the streets of Chicago was the velocipede, which first appeared in France around 1863 and then made its way to the States in the late 1860s. Unfortunately, the velocipede had steel wheels, making for a very bumpy ride and earning it the nickname "boneshaker."

Chicago companies such as the Crane Brothers and Loring & Keene were "among the first to manufacture velocipedes in the United States." (Duis 179) However, because of its somewhat crude design, the velocipede had limited appeal, and both Chicago companies soon resumed their former business -- manufacturing water pipes.

But in the 1870s a new bicycle came along -- the "high wheeler." The high-wheel bicycle had solid rubber tires, making it more comfortable to ride. However, it required a certain amount of daring to be able to ride. The size of the front wheel was limited only by the height of the rider, and wheels 58" tall were not uncommon. Because the rider sat so high, sudden stops caused the rider to pitch forward over the bicycle, landing on his head. It is commonly believed the phrase "taking a header" came from this phenomenon.

In Chicago, the high-wheelers quickly gathered a following. The Chicago Bicycle Club was founded in 1878, and the Chicago Bicycle Track Association, for racing bicycles, was formed in 1885. By 1892, Chicago had almost 50 different bicycle clubs with more than 6,000 members.

The popularity of the high-wheeler, however, was limited to the wealthy elite. The bicycles cost hundreds of dollars at a time when $100 would be equivalent to nearly $2,000 dollars today. This kept the membership of Chicago's bicycle clubs exclusive.

But the introduction of the "safety bicycle" around 1890 catapulted the bicycle craze to new heights. The safety bike was touted as safer because it had smaller wheels of the same size. These new bicycles were also much more affordable. By 1900, the Sears catalog listed bicycles for as little as $11.75 -- about $240 today. This put bicycle ownership within the reach of the working class, and its popularity quickly took off.

During this bicycle boom, Chicago became the center for bicycle manufacturing -- easily earning the title of the bicycle-building capital of the United States. In 1895, the Chicago Times-Herald reported that the city was home to 40 companies manufacturing bicycles. Arnold, Schwinn & Company was founded in Chicago that year. But just one year later, Chicago boasted more than 80 bicycle manufacturers, and the city claimed that "two out of every three bicycles made in America came from plants within 150 miles of the city." (Duis 190) Take a look at this page from the Wheelmen organization ("dedicated to keeping alive the heritage of American cycling") that lists the hundreds of bicycle brands manufactured in Chicago during this era.

So how did this glorious era of Chicago bicycle manufacturing end? The soaring popularity and plummeting prices led to a market surplus that eventually signaled the end of the craze. Throughout the late 1890s and early 1900s companies closed, and the bicycling clubs saws their memberships diminish. And as bicycle ownership came within reach of the middle classes, the wealthy who were responsible for starting the fad moved on to other, more exclusive pastimes -- like that new-fangled contraption, the automobile.


Challenging Chicago: Coping with Everyday Life, 1837-1920 by Perry R. Duis (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998) was a primary source for this column.

Chicago in 1900: Transportation
This essay from the Chicago Public Library website provides additional information about transportation, roads and vehicles at the turn of the twentieth century.

Bicycle Museum of America
Visit the website for the Bicycle Museum of America in New Breman, Ohio to view dozens of photographs of bicycles from their collection, including several manufactured in Chicago.

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About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a real, live Chicago librarian. If you have topic ideas or questions you would like answered, send your suggestions to and it may be featured in a future column.

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