Bicycle Trade Cycling Shows of Yesteryear
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.