This is a guest post from Christopher Spehr, inventory management technician of the Inventory Management and Document Fulfillment Section at the Collections Management Division.
We are in an era of unmatched popularity for the bicycle. More and more people are riding bikes for transportation and for recreation every day. Washington D.C. has become a mecca for riding bikes and saving the environment and many dedicated bike lanes have popped up all over the city.
Today we are going to get a look at two interesting books that I worked on as part of a collection’s improvement project for “Do not serve” books. Do not serve books are items that have become too delicate or too brittle to continue to circulate without special care and handling. These books are being preserved and carefully scanned to make digital copies available for viewing on our online catalogues and then, after they are scanned, they are sent to our long-term storage facilities.
The 1880s and 1890s is considered one of the biggest boom periods for the cycling craze and it gave rise to an era of great popularity for bike riding in general. Two significant technological advancements were largely responsible for the boom in the bicycle’s popularity: the safety bicycle with its chain drive transmission and the inflatable pneumatic bicycle tire. The chain allowed you to control the speed of the bike which gave better control of the bike, and you could achieve higher speeds and the tire added a lot of comfort to the bikes ride and the wheels did not get as much wear and tear. The bikes we ride today are still dependent on these components.
Pictured here is a woman with a safety bike in the typical riding attire of the period. The bicycle was a contributor to the women’s empowerment and liberation movement as bikes were very popular among women. It gave women more freedom to travel and move around locally. It got women out of the home and into more outdoor activity. A bike also helped loosen up the stuffy uncomfortable Victorian attire. Women could wear lose fitting clothes because they were needed to ride and it helped transform taste in attire. The freedom of movement was a plus in more ways than one. In other words, riding became a liberating activity for women at the time. The relative low cost of a bike added to the popularity as well.
There were many new and endearing upstart companies who entered the bike manufacture business at that time including the Wright Brothers. They were originally designers of early bikes and included some of the components of bikes into the development of the first airplane. They developed the Van Cleave model bike which was a safety bike that had mixed sales success. The Huffy bike company was part of the remnants of the Wright Brothers company. The Hickory Wheel Company and Union Cycles were both early American manufacturers of bicycles and there was an explosion of companies that arose during this high period of bike popularity. Many of these companies did not last long because they were bought out and conglomerated by bigger more successful manufacturers. Others changed their focus into different areas like motorcycles, automobiles, and airplanes. Schwinn is the most famous American brand that survived from this period.
It seems from the Washington Star story from the period that the Hickory Wheel company used wooden wheels which was unique. From my research it seems the wooden wheel did not gain popularity because it had a lot of drawbacks in bad weather and was not durable. This booklet was distributed by District Cycle Company which was at 425 Pennsylvania Avenue here in Washington and it seemed to be an early seller and distributor of bikes. They helped establish bike shops in Pennsylvania as well. There was an interesting article in the Washington Times about the issue of bike theft in downtown Washington. District Cycle was the victim of a serial bike thief viewed as very cleaver. He would grab a bike, use it, then return it, to grab another. It reminds us that some things do not change. It is hard to tell how long District Cycle lasted in DC. I found little history of the business in my search. It changed hands in 1890 but little else could be found. Union Cycles was another manufacturer of bikes from the same period. There is not a lot of information about the company, and it lasted only a few short years as did Hickory Wheel Company.
Much of the detail of these early bicycle enterprises have been largely lost to history. Maybe with the renewed interest in bicycles as a mode of transportation then more interest will be made to rediscover this lost history. For now, we have these wonderful booklets that helped launch these bike manufacturer’s business ventures. It is a reminder of our industrial past and the past glory of riding a bicycle on a beautiful spring or summer day.
Preserving brittle items is very important for continued access to its contents. Two books out of thousands, one story out of hundreds I get to see through these collection management projects.
 History of the safety bicycle. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_bicycle (accessed July 2021).
 Article “How the 19th century bicycle craze empowered women and changed fashion” by Hannah Ostroff (May 17, 2018). Source: https://www.si.edu/stories/19th-century-bicycle-craze (accessed July 2021).
 “The Van Cleve bicycle that the Wrights built and sold.”. Source: https://www.wright-brothers.org/Information_Desk/Just_the_Facts/Bicycles/Van_Cleve_Catalog.htm (accessed July 2021).