Mike Wolfe is famous for being a collector of all things Americana. His keen eye and knowledge of items from America’s past has made him a go-to expert when it comes to memorabilia. But out of all the cool things he’s “picked” up over the years, there’s still one type of find that holds a special place in his heart: bicycles.
When Mike showed us around his extensive vintage bike collection, his enthusiasm was infectious.
“This is one of my favorite bikes”, Mike says as he rolls out a Schwinn Autocycle, a bicycle manufactured beginning in the 1930s. Even though it was made many decades ago, it still has some pretty striking modern features, like dual headlights, a floating seat and even a speedometer build into the handlebars.
“For them to make something...THIS elaborate for a child?,” remarked Mike. “It’s so incredible.”
This made us wonder - why would a bike company create such an advanced bicycle for children, in the 1930s no less? Well, it all stems from the big bang of the bicycle industry in the 1890s, also known as the “bicycle craze”.
When you think of vintage bicycles, the first thing that comes to mind might be a bike with a giant wheel in the front and a smaller one in the back. These were popular for a while, but as you can imagine, they took a lot of physical maneuvering to make them work. It helped to be more in shape or have an athletic build in order to climb atop one of those seats that were several feet off the ground.
In the mid 1880s, however, the safety bicycle was created, which looks more like the modern bicycle people still use today. The most important feature was having smaller wheels that were equal in size. This made it easier for a wider range of riders to pedal these bikes around town.
Within just a few years, the craze had begun. Americans were excited by what this new device would bring to them: a personal freedom they didn’t have before. Cars were not yet commonplace so if you wanted to travel, you would need to ride a horse, find a train that went where you needed to go, or walk on foot. Now, they had an alternative that was easy to ride across longer distances and didn’t require feed for animals. You could travel at your own schedule without checking up on train itineraries and destinations.
The bicycle craze spawned many new developments in such a short period of time. Once cyclists took over the nation, they quickly realized that the current conditions of America’s roads weren’t inherently great for long rides. They lobbied for smoother paved roads and many times, got their wish. Our highways and city streets look the way they do, in part, because of a vocal group of bicycle enthusiasts making their voices heard in the late 19th century.
The way products were advertised and sold were changed during this time period as well. When safety bikes were first rolled out, they were a tad bit expensive, so shops and bicycle brands came up with the idea for people to put a “down payment” on their bike in order to have one sooner. Bike manufacturers also had plans to constantly update their bikes every year or so, in order to convince cyclists to ditch their current bike for a newer, spiffier one. This is now a pretty common sales tactic for smartphone manufacturers and others in the tech industry, known as “planned obsolescence”.
By the mid-1890s, more than 300 bicycle manufacturers were in business, racing to collect as much profit as possible. As more competitors entered the ring, the market was flooded with bikes, which brought down prices. What’s important is how this allowed the common man and woman to have a reasonable means of transportation. There was a newfound freedom gained with a bicycle in the 1890s and people became hooked. Americans could ride from town to town on a whim. If you had a job that was a little far from home, it wasn’t an impossibility to make it into work every day.
Although the bicycle craze fizzled out by the early 1900s, this modernized two-wheeled method of transportation was here to stay. Manufacturers continued to innovate the creation of bikes for all ages, which is why Schwinn started making the types of bikes seen in Mike Wolfe’s garage. In a lot of ways, the bicycles we’re riding on today aren’t that much different from those you could get 100 years ago.