Out of the ordinary
Once bicycles shifted from high-wheeled monsters, they ruled Chicago roads
By George Bushnell
Special to the Tribune
Published January 2, 2005
When British composer Harry Dacre penned the ditty "Daisy Bell" in 1892, he reportedly was reacting to a quip by a friend. He could just as easily have been writing about the pastime that was all the rage in his song, known as "A Bicycle Built For Two."
Bicycling reached a fever pitch in 1890, when the high-wheeled Ordinary was replaced by the modern safety bicycle with two equal-sized wheels.
Developed in 1884 by an English mechanic named John Kemp Starley, the safety bike caught on in Europe before coming to America.
"Until 1890, cycling was a dangerous sport, limited to a small number of daring men," says Russell L. Lewis, Chicago Historical Society deputy director of collections and research. "A five-foot high saddle made it difficult to mount and dismount the Ordinary."
With the pedals attached to the high wheel, it also was hard to steer, and if it struck a small stone or uneven pavement, it catapulted its rider, often to serious injury.
Starley's bicycle, which he called "Rover," caught on in Europe. The equal-sized wheels made it easy to ride and balance for males and females. The New York Times, in 1891, called the bicycle phenomenon "one of much larger importance than all the victories and defeats of Napolean."
That also was the year when an ambitious 31-year-old German mechanic, Ignaz Schwinn, arrived in Chicago and set out to build bicycles. A bike mechanic in Germany, he polished his skills at a technical school and then as an apprentice machinist.
In 1893, Schwinn established his bicycle factory in rented space at Peoria and Lake Streets. In 1895, he organized Arnold, Schwinn & Co., teaming up with Adolph Arnold, a Chicago meatpacker who provided $75,000 in capital.
By 1899 Schwinn was producing a million bicycles each year.
Brands selling in Chicago at the time included the Crescent, the Monarch, the Western Wheelworks Cycle and Pope Cycles.
In the 1890s, a top-of-the-line Schwinn started at $150. A used Monarch cycle cost $150, and the Chicago Inter-Ocean advertised a tandem model for $150, half of a working-man's annual wage.
The best-dressed cycle of that time wore a brass kerosene lamp ($2.25), had one or two spare tires ($6.50 each) and a tire repair kit (5 cents). Then, as now, bicycle buyers resorted to savings, loans and payment plans to join the cycling craze.
Chicago's West Madison Street was the city's "bicycle row," where the cyclist could buy new or used bicycles, have repairs made, inflate flat tires and meet kindred spirits.
Bicycles meant freedom especially for the young, single woman. It let her escape her eagle-eyed Victorian mother.
But this women's "liberation" raised some eyebrows. In June 1895, Cyda Stephenson, a teacher at Humboldt School, dressed in knickers, went cycling and then wore those clothes to class. During an ensuing school board skirmish, Stephenson maintained that what she chose to wear when cycling or teaching was her business. Surprised by her stand, the board dropped the matter.
Female cyclists of the 1890s typically wore a sailor hat, a shirt-waist blouse with a mannish collar, low shoes, leggings and a divided skirt, bloomers or knickers.
Hattie Srage donned something far more daring. On a Saturday in July 1895, Srage cycled in heavy traffic on Dearborn Street, dressed in a flesh-colored sweater and black tights. She was arrested on a disorderly conduct charge and fined $25.
Men's cycling attire included knickers, a visor cap, sack coat or sweater, shirt and tie, long stockings and low shoes.
In an 1896 issue of Harper's Weekly, writer James B. Townsend also listed as cycling essentials: a court plaster (predecessor of the adhesive bandage), needles, thread, safety pins, Pond's extract and a change of underwear.
A "must" for serious cyclists was the RedBook published by the League of American Wheelmen. This guide was invaluable, "because of the absence of signposts, information as to the condition of roads and reliable information as to distances from the average person one meets."
For the more adventursome, cycling offered new and exciting challenges. In his book "A Social History of the Bicycle" (American Heritage Press, 1972), Robert B. Smith writes that the city's State Street cable car line was a popular place for cycle "scorchers" (speeders).
Cyclists hitching a ride had to swerve around the cablecar stopped for passengers then risk running head-on into an oncoming cable car.
Such urban exploits called attention to the need for bicycle paths in the city. One plan was to build a path from Chicago to Milwaukee and on to Minneapolis. An eight-mile stretch to Milwaukee would have cost the riders a 10-cent toll. Decades ahead of their time, the plans were not implemented.
Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison, in 1897, proposed an ordinance setting an annual per-cycle fee of 75 cents, the proceeds to support road improvements and to deter increasing bicycle theft by issuing bicycle licenses. The ordinance was defeated by cyclists and Judge Larim C. Collins, who maintained the fee "would open a vast legal field-day for legislative bodies."
After buying a cycle, most Chicagoans joined a bicycle clube and there were more than 500 from which to choose. Many had uniforms for group outings and endurance rides. The larger clubs offered reading rooms and social events from banquets and conventions to fundraising dances.
At first, the Chicago Cycling Club shared quarters with the Raquette Club on Michigan Avenue and moved in 1888 to a three-flat on 57th Street facing Jackson Park, convenient to steam trains and cablecars for longer distance travel. The original club is no longer in existence.
Bicycle riding schools also sprang up. For 55 cents, a new rider could have a half-hour lesson on a borrowed cycle with training wheels. Ten lessons cost $5, which could be applied to the purchase of a bicycle from participating shops.
Bicycles also had business applications. By the mid-1890s, the Chicago Post Office conducted an experiment to speed the delivery of special mail by bicycle and horse and buggy.
The bicycles won easily, and the following year the postal service assigned 115 postmen on bicycles saving $5,000.
At this time a Chicago physician named John T. Hinckley rigged two tandems side by side with a cloth box between them and a stretcher in a box. This foot-powered ambulance, ridden by two doctors delivered emergency cases to a hospital much faster than the horse-drawn ambulances of the era.
"Bicycle racing was the rage in the 1890s and drew huge crowds of spectators," said Jim Nugent, Park Forest author, cyclist and historian. Chicago's main racing event was the 15-mile Memorial Day Pullman Road Race, first run in 1887. It started from the Leland Hotel at Michigan Avenue and Van Buren Street. The race went south to 35th Street, east to Grand Boulevard (now King Drive), south to Midway Plaisance, east to Stony Island Avenue and south to Pullman dirt road. After crossing what was known as the sand hill, they finished at the Hotel Florence in Pullman.
Thousands of fans would line the route, with reports of some 10,000 at the finish line.
A decade after 1900, the automobile had largely replaced the bicycle as the nation's main mode of transportation. But the bicycle had pioneered the fight for better roads, the emancipation of women and new travel vistas for Chicago and the nation.