I Want to Ride My Bicycle: The History of Bicycles in 19th and Early 20th century Guelph
During the recent pandemic, bicycles became increasingly popular. The demand was higher than the supply and a bicycle shortage emerged. This was not the first time this mode of transportation became very popular. It has seized the populace’s imagination on more than one occasion in the past. However, it was during the 1890s that a bicycle craze took hold of the Canadian public.
The 1890s Bicycle Craze
The bicycle first caught the public eye in the 1860s. It fueled an intense interest in this machine which looked nothing like today’s models. These models initially featured a large back wheel and a small front wheel (Boneshakers). In the 1870s, a bike emerged which was the reverse. It had a large front wheel and a small rear wheel. These bikes were dubbed “Penny Farthings” because of their shape.
The interest faded after peaking in 1867 and 1868, although the bicycle remained popular in England. However, in the 1890s, a revolutionary change combined with social factors to make the bicycle popular once again. The new face of the bicycle was called the “safety bike.” This two-same-sized-wheeled bicycle was reinforced by the discovery of pneumatic inflatable tires and pedal-driven bicycle chains. In appearance, it was not vastly different from today’s models.
In 1896, the number of people using bikes increased. Even during this time of severe economic depression, bicycle sales continued. Small companies emerged to handle the volume. Unfortunately, this eventually resulted in a market being flooded with bikes. Many of these newly spawned shops consequently folded.
The new bikes were easy for everyone to ride. Gender and age did not have an impact. For women, in particular, the safety bike offered the chance for newfound freedom. Women who rarely rode the boneshaker could easily hop on and control a safety bike. And they did.
Clothing adapted to the new form of exercise and recreation. Bloomers and split skirts became the norm for women. Both genders adopted uniformity in their apparel. Bicycle social clubs, formed during this period, actually had uniforms.
However, this freedom to ride into the countryside – where many urban riders made their way using maps printed for this purpose, was not for everyone. The Bicycle Clubs of the time were only for those who had the leisure time to indulge in such pursuits. Moreover, bicycles were expensive. Until they were mass-produced, only this with money could afford one. Owning a bicycle was an indication of social standing in the 1890s.
The Guelph Bicycle Craze
Guelph’s first Bicycle Club was formed in 1882. Its members were typical representatives of the upper levels of society. Its president was George Sleeman (Sleeman’s Brewery) and William Allan (Allan’s mill) was the secretary-treasurer. At that time, it had 18 “wheelers” or members.The exclusive nature of the bicycle club was to remain into the 1890s. In 1899, the Guelph Club hosted the Second Ontario Provincial Meet of the Canadian Wheelman’s Association.” It was held from June 30 to July 1. In addition to the usual meetings, the Guelph Bicycle Club organized and produced “The Wheelman’s Burlesque Circus” which took place in the Petrie Rink. It was dubbed “The biggest attraction ever given at a Wheelman’s event.” The “Burlesque” was to be of the “great scope” of a circus. It was to be comprised of more than burlesque, including
- Single and double trapeze
- Trick bicycle riding
- Chariot racing
- Pickaninny walk
- Dahomey war dance
- Funny clowns
The interest in owning a bicycle was not restricted to the upper and middle classes. In Guelph, as elsewhere in Canada, people wanted to enjoy the freedom a bike could give. However, the cost of ownership was high. A Guelph Mercury article for July 16, 1896, writes about how the latest slump in bicycle prices reflects the realization that “up to the present time…the number of those who have not bicycles is enormously in excess of those more fortunate, and until a wheel is placed on the market to retail for from $25 to $35 dollars, this will continue to be the case.” This price was eventually achieved in the early 1900s with mass production. It increased the popularity of bicycles among the working classes and, therefore, eliminated the status of owning one.
Manufacturers, Retailers and Repair Shops
To keep up with the demand for bicycles, Guelph had its shops. Some were manufacturers. The known companies were small shops. Among them were:
- J. Coons (1896): He was a machinist for Pepper & Company (wagon manufacturers) who also made bikes
- W. F. Mitchell & Company: Located at 126 Quebec Street, this company produced a few but was known for the variety of models in its store. An ad in 1895 noted, “They keep one of the Finest Stocks of Bicycles west of Toronto.” A 15-year-old Fred Mitchell was considered a phenomenal bicycler and competed in several races in 1896. The shop was still selling bikes in the early 1900s
- Pequegnat Bicycle Depot on St. George’s Square: In 1897, Fred Frank was an expert bicycle machinist in this shop. Frank was injured when he thought he was relighting the gas oven for enamelling bikes. The oven, full of gas, exploded and Frank was seriously injured.
- Wellington Bicycles: This was around by 1902. The Moxley Brothers manufactured the bikes.
These companies formed before 1899 when many bike producers were small shops. In that same year, several companies merged to produce Canada’s largest Canadian bicycle manufacturer – the Canada Cycle & Motor Co. Ltd. (C.C.M.).
In addition, bicycles created other niche markets. These included retailers and repair shops. Guelph had both. While some manufacturers sold their products out of their shops, other Guelph retailers made space in their inventory for bikes not produced by their workers. Among those shops selling bikes in Guelph were:
- F. P. Mooney: He had a shop on Wyndham
- Thomas J. Day: Located on Lower Wyndham, Day is known better for books and stationery
- W. C. Parker: This man was the acclaimed “Up-to-Date Bicycle Man.” In 1900, his shop was next door to the Opera House on Upper Wyndham
Early individuals involved in bicycle repair included J. R. Jackson at 84-86 Upper Wyndham whose major focus seems to have been tinware and house furnishings.
Another Guelphite did his best to contribute to the improvement of the bike. In 1998, Dewitt Webster Spence applied for a patent for a “New Improved Driving Mechanism for Bicycles and Velocipedes.”
Bicycle riders were expected to wear suitable attire. If you belonged to a club, the outfit was one approved by the club and its members. In the early periods, members wore what was essentially a uniform. This changed but bicyclists, particularly women bicyclists, still conformed to specific riding attire.
For women, bloomers, sometimes worn modestly beneath a riding or split skirt, were the norm. These outfits were designed to allow greater freedom of movement. To protect, and conceal any leg from showing, gaiters were worn. They stretched from the shoe to just above the knee. The shoes were also designed for bicycling and/or other sports. In 1898, men and women could purchase “Bicycle Shoes” from Guelph shoe manufacturer, Hepburn and Company.
The specific style of bike wear changed in the early 1900s. With the reduction in bike costs, the “uniform” was abandoned. Men wore comfortable clothing. They adapted work clothes. The major concern was to avoid any clothing becoming ensnarled in and trapped by the bike chains.
Bikes and their riders were associated with several terms. The early single large wheel was called a boneshaker - if the front wheel was much smaller than the rear wheel or a Penny Farthing if the reverse was true. People who rode bikes were called “Wheelers,” although women, because of their outfits, might be referred to as pedal pushers. Scorchers was a name given to both “road hogs” and “sprinters.” Then there is an interesting slang term used as an epithet. This was “ice.”
Young boys, in particular, seemed to enjoy yelling it after older and less-skilled wheelers. It appears in 1896 and is still in use in the early 1900s. When Hereward Cockin rejoices in finally mastering his bike and going at a speed comparable to the rest of the bicycle riders he remarks: “Where is that brat of a boy who called out ‘Ice! Ice!’ as I passed the Hospital gates five minutes ago?”
Riders, Accidents and the Law
During this period, women took to the streets. While no mention is made of a female bicycle club, such as existed in Galt, Guelph did have several female bicycle enthusiasts. A young woman is mentioned as becoming involved in an accident in St. George’s Square in 1897 when a “grey old widower” who was a fanatical biking devotee “did not observe a lady bicyclist.” She saw him and tried to get out of the way but did not succeed in doing so. In the end, according to the reporter, it “was a conglomeration of bikes and dry goods that were seen for an instant.” This accident was less damaging than one where two-wheelers, one female and one male collided head-on when they tried to pass each other. The results were a sprained arm, bruises and a badly bent wheel.
Accidents occurred and were often reported in the local paper. The results are stated clearly in a 1902 Mercury (Source is thanks to Ed Butts). The writer was Hereward Cockin and he was writing as his alter ego “The Blacksmith.”
During the past ten days, my Alter Ego has ruined two pairs of pants, reduced two shirts to the semblance of a fishing net, punctured his wheel, had a runaway, and been interviewed by the police without the shadow of a chance to prove an alibi. Frequent contact with the pedals has left his shins looking like a well defined outbreak of the measles. Vulgar boys have assaulted him with injurious speech and made his life weary with sarcastic enquiries.
Cockin goes on to discuss his adventures on the way to mastering the bike.
The accidents that took place are relatable even today. Consider the man whose one bike wheel became caught in the tracks of the street railway or the header resulting from a blown tire. Tires needed to be pumped and repairs to them made using “gum stickem.”
Some bicyclists even ran up against the law. Riding on the sidewalks could earn you a fine of between $1 and $2. There were also warnings issued through the newspaper. On July 10, 1897, the Guelph Mercury stated that if certain young lady bicyclists “persist in scorching on the pavement on Waterloo Avenue” their names would be given to the Chief of Police. No further mention is made of them so perhaps they ceased their wild behaviour.
Another bicycle fan was forced to reform his wicked ways. After being arrested for stealing a bicycle, Charles Liersch of Hespeler aced first one magistrate, Watt and then another, Magistrate Chisolm. From each, Liersch received a sentence of 2.5 years imprisonment. Bicycle thieves, it appears, were taken very seriously.
In the 1900s, the bicycle continued to be a part of the Guelph transportation system. The car became more and more important as the decade wore on, but the bicycle has remained both as a recreational vehicle and a means of getting from one place to another.