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Bi­cy­cle Trade Cy­cling Shows of Yes­ter­year

Pedal Magazine - - Contents - BY WIL­LIAM HUM­BER

Bike trade shows of the 1890s had all the glam­our and pub­lic­ity later as­so­ci­ated with the big an­nual car shows out of De­troit, Mich. No two cy­cling shows were big­ger than those in New York City, N.Y. and Chicago, Ill., the hubs, as it were, of the bi­cy­cle trade in North Amer­ica.

While they could not boast of a top-10 celebrity such as An­nie Lon­don­derry, who had ap­peared at the 1894 Sa­lon du Cy­cle in Paris, France, what they had in their favour was ac­cess to the mas­sive Amer­i­can mar­ket. This mar­ket’s an­tic­i­pa­tion re­sem­bled in many ways that of the one that looks for­ward to to­day’s new re­lease of an Ap­ple dig­i­tal prod­uct, with, per­haps, one key dif­fer­ence.

Rid­ers of the late-19th cen­tury were of­ten re­luc­tant to trade in their pre­vi­ous year’s bi­cy­cle model for the new in­no­va­tions of the sea­son. Af­ter all, the re­fined safety cy­cle of this pe­riod re­sem­bles those of our day, though not weigh­ing in at to­day’s re­duced amount. Even­tu­ally this would dis­rupt the mar­ket for Amer­ica’s largest cy­cle com­pa­nies south of the bor­der, while in Canada, the same fate would be­fall Canada Cy­cle and Mo­tor Com­pany (CCM). Sales fig­ures for the early years of the decade would not be matched by the turn of the cen­tury.

To some ex­tent, how­ever, this was all in the fu­ture. In the mid-1890s, one went to the trade show to see the lat­est mod­els, par­tic­u­larly the new ad­di­tions, to talk about the lat­est news in the in­dus­try and on the road, and to con­tem­plate cy­cling’s place as the lead­ing sport of the day and most likely long into the fu­ture.

The first week of Jan­uary 1895 brought all the lead­ing man­u­fac­tur­ers of bikes, tires and spe­cial­ties west of Buf­falo, N.Y. to Chicago’s first trade show.

Liv­ing pic­tures (a pre­de­ces­sor of film) por­trayed the bi­cy­cle’s evo­lu­tion over the past 70 years, trick rid­ers amused all ages, all while the Sec­ond Reg­i­ment Band and Orches­tra pro­vided on­site mu­sic.

New Jersey’s great sprinter Arthur Zim­mer­man was in­vited, and vis­it­ing agents were promised a be­hind-the-scenes op­por­tu­nity to meet him.

Chicago’s grand event was fol­lowed two weeks later by the even big­ger, more os­ten­ta­tious Na­tional Cy­cle Show in New York City’s Madi­son Square Gar­den. “Ev­ery new nov­elty known to the trade will have a place in the ex­hi­bi­tion,” promised its pro­moter, a man named Ge­orge Sanger.

Im­prove­ments in cy­cle tech­nol­ogy were on dis­play, but the like­li­hood of new ma­chines was down­played, a hint of fu­ture chal­lenges for the trade.

In the eyes of the pub­lic, the vast am­phithe­atre with its gala at­mos­phere aptly dis­played the mo­ment of the bi­cy­cle’s great­est al­lure. The new-fan­gled cars slowly ap­pear­ing on Amer­i­can streets looked dan­ger­ous, re­quired ex­pert driv­ers, which few could hire, and weren’t cheap, at least in com­par­i­son to the eco­nom­i­cal bi­cy­cle.

Much like to­day’s car shows, many of the vis­i­tors to the New York show weren’t even cy­clists, but just wanted to be where the ac­tion was. Here, they heard fevered dis­cus­sions on re­cent by­laws pre­vent­ing rid­ing at night with­out a light and the fines im­posed. Reck­less rid­ing on street pave­ment with­out care for pedes­tri­ans was an­other topic. At­ten­dees even heard talk of in­creas­ing pro­fes­sion­al­ism amongst the ranks of such lead­ing cy­clists as Zim­mer­man, and whether this was to be re­gret­ted or cel­e­brated.

Nor was cy­cling the only in­ter­est of the bet­ter class of “wheel” peo­ple. Some clubs re­ported on or­ga­niz­ing brass bands to ac­com­pany them on tours, while oth­ers an­nounced vaude­ville shows for those times of the year when road con­di­tions were im­pass­able.

Much talk fo­cused on Eng­land’s “Jersey Lily,” Lily Langtry, re­cently ob­served cy­cling in Philadel­phia in full cloth knicker­bock­ers, with cloth gaiters to match, and Rus­sian leather boots, with her tweed skirt reach­ing her an­kles. A coloured linen shirt and Alpine hat of soft gray added to what was de­scribed as a “chic” ap­pear­ance.

Langtry was a true celebrity of her day, ap­pear­ing on stage through­out the An­glo-Amer­i­can world dur­ing a time in which it was ru­moured that she was more than a friend of Bri­tain’s Prince of Wales. There’s noth­ing like a celebrity to con­vince the world of what con­sti­tutes a con­tem­po­rary sen­sa­tion, and so for a few years in this be­nighted age, the bi­cy­cle and its an­nual trade shows reigned supreme.

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