Sunday, May 31, 2009

The View from a Moment, 1945

In 1945, the Schwinn Company, then at its zenith, produced a 50th Anniversary book to commemorate its first half-century in business. It was an interesting moment for the American bicycle industry. The first bicycle boom of the 1890s and early 1900s had died away by the 1920s, when the automobile became the new must-have item for middle class families. Although not quite yet relegated to the toy chest, the bicycle during the 1920s became an accessory, rather than a mode of transportation.

By the 1930s, as the excerpt below points out, more adults returned to the bicycle as a useful vehicle during the Great Depression. In 1945, with the war either just over, or soon ended (there is no indication when in 1945 the book was printed), the future of American transportational bicycling was by no means certain. The era of expressways and freeways and urban centers hacked-up with on- and off-ramps and overpasses was still to come. There was, in the moment this book was produced, a real potential for the bicycle to return to the center, or at least closer to the center, of American life.

At the same time, Schwinn and other manufacturers knew that the juvenile market was their largest and most consistent. Driving a car was already seen as a badge of adulthood, and bicycling was becoming widely regarded, as the excerpt also points out, as a sort of apprenticeship for the greater responsibility of driving a car.

What emerges is a curious combination of optimism about the future of bicycling in America (it is a Schwinn publication, after all), and a sort of grudging acceptance that the first real age of the bicycle has well and truly ended in America.

From 50 Years of Schwinn-Built Bicycles: The Story of the Bicycle and its Contributions to Our Way of Life. Chicago, IL: Arnold, Schwinn, and Co., 1945.

"The bicycle with the big basket has long been a familiar sight in our streets.  This short distance delivery is inexpensive; it requires no motor fuel; its tires last so long they are discarded because of age deterioration more often than because of wear. The investment in the cycle is small and with reasonable care it lasts indefinitely...

The bicycle is the transportation of our children and our youth... It is cheap, pleasant, safe and healthy transportation. But for the youngster, it is far more than that. Every normal boy and girl wants a bicycle... In our age of mechanization, mechanical devices have a constantly increasing interest for our children, and nothing satisfies that interest so much as the bicycle... It teaches children the rules of traffic control and safety and conditions them for the greater responsibility of driving a motor car later on...

The great depression of the 30's brought a re-awakening of adult interest in cycling, born perhaps of a desire for simpler, saner living after the strain of the frantic 20's. That interest has grown constantly and bids fair to become an important factor in adult recreation and transportation. Factory yards, like school yards, have ever-increasing numbers of bicycles, during work hours. Workers who live within cycling distance of their work, are beginning to realize the folly of driving their motor cars comparatively short distances to and from work, and subjecting them to deterioration brought about by standing out in the dust and baking heat of summer...

Cycling for health will do much toward relieving the nervous tension of modern living and overcome the debilitating effects arising from the convenience of modern, mechanized transportation, both public and private...."


  1. This seems to have been/is a cool book to spend one's time curled up with!

  2. The quote sounds like a reflection of our times.

  3. I might have planned it that way. :)


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