Early Des Moines Bicycle History

High wheels, the safety bicycle boom, and beyond

Everyone in America were riding bicycles in 1896, and the people of Des Moines were no exception.

At the end of the 19th century, technology was on the move - literally. After the emergence and dominance of railroads in the middle of the 19th century, the next major transportation revolution was smaller-scale, and much more personal. The initial invention of the bicycle in 1866, and its first brief burst of popularity as a fad on the east coast of America during the fall and winter of 1868-69, had almost no impact in the then-new city of Des Moines, far to the west. However, the high wheel bicycles of the 1880s began to interest and engage its citizens, and by the 1890s the safety bicycle took hold in Des Moines, as it did everywhere in America, in what has been called the “Bicycle Boom”.

In the 1880s, the high-wheel bicycle (or ‘ordinary bicycle’, as they were called at the time) was state-of-the-art transportation technology. They were exquisitely and precisely made, showcasing the new technologies of ball-bearings, electroplated metals, and lightweight steel alloys. They were expensive, showy, and usually owned and operated by the young, well-off members of the middle class. The Iowa Wheelmen during the high-wheel era were a small, but very visible riding club. The high riding position on an ordinary bicycle was more familiar to people of the time, since it closely approximates the height of a rider on a horse. Despite this, the bicycles certainly attracted attention everywhere they went, and the machines were widely admired for their smooth, quiet, efficient operation – the epitome of modern technology. People at the time were amazed by the distances that cyclists could cover under their own power, and races were frequently held in Iowa (and elsewhere) pitting cyclists against horse-riders. The cyclists often won, especially over longer distances.

During the 1880s, women rode high-wheel tricycles, which better accommodated women’s fashions. The influence of female riders was important in the early development of cycle touring as a pastime, and women set their own speed and distance records too.

In the early 1890s, the invention of the pneumatic tire made a new style of bicycle popular, called the ‘safety’. This is recognizable as a modern bicycle, and its lower cost, less intimidating design, and easier ride made it an immediate hit. By 1896, at the height of the boom, a large percentage of the population were riding bikes. There was an entire page of the newspaper devoted to cycling in the summer of 1896, and bicycles were used for commuting, racing, touring, courting, and picnics, to give just a few examples. Besides regular people's riding activities, bicycle racing was a major spectator sport, and numerous cycling-related products were available everywhere.

36 bicycle brands were made and distributed in Iowa during the 1890s, three of them in Des Moines. The most prominent of these was the Kenyon Bicycle Manufacturing Company, founded in 1891 and initially located at 205 6th Avenue. The company changed hands a couple of times, changing its name to the Pacemaker Bicycle Manufacturing Company, and then back to the Kenyon-Cooper Bicycle Company. Under this name in 1896 the company had a factory located at 818/820 Grand Avenue, and a retail location at 805 Locust. Because of their commitment to building very high quality bicycles, combined with their attempts to price them low enough to get market share, the company was one of the very few bicycle companies to go bankrupt at the height of the bicycle boom. It reorganized afterwards and kept going through the early 1900s.

After 1896, the bicycle boom faded, and cycling was no longer central to culture and technology the way it had been just a few years before. Wealthy consumers focused on conspicuous consumption purchased automobiles and motorcycles, and the racers mostly followed along to these new machines. However, cycling proved to be extremely important to the development of further transportation technology - almost all early automobiles used bicycle patents and concepts for various parts (differential, rack and pinion steering, bearing designs, etc.), and, famously, Orville and Wilbur Wright were bicycle mechanics before they moved on to building airplanes.



Kenyon-Cooper Bicycle Company failurepdf / 50.49 kB Download
Kenyon-Cooper Bicycle Company failure, cont.pdf / 75.50 kB Download