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American Bicycle and Hardware Retrospecive: A Brief Report

Posted on March 17, 2016 | 0 Comments

Thorson, the 1895 wooden rimmed, skip tooth bicycle hangs over the Plumbing Department in Hippo Hardware, was the first thing I connected to here at Hippo.  I have a deep interest in bicycles so this was the first antique that really caught my eye! 

One of the ways that I have previously understood history is through the design and manufacturing of bicycles. 

So, as I was admiring Thorson one day, I thought it would be interesting to trace the history of bicycles along side the production of hardware.  Below I will trace the key historical developments of bicycles along side hardware to give a bigger picture of American industry.


The 1890's


Picture this: Chicago, 1895. The bicycle had been being produced in America since the 1870's. In 1895 there were over 75 manufactures of bicycles in Chicago's "Prairie District." Most of them closed within the year.  A few remained open such as Western Wheel Works, and Arnold Schwinn's bicycle manufacturing, which made bicycles in the U.S. through the 70's.

Our friend from the ceiling's manufacturer, The Thorson Cycling Company,  didn't make the cut.  However, Thorson dons many of the contemporary trends of the time. Before the modern day bush-roller (roller) chain, was the "Humber" or block chain.

Instead of having a pin that goes through bushings, this chain uses a "block" of metal that rotates around the pin plate.  Also the skip tooth 1/4" diameter chain ring was the major trend in chains and gears. Previous to chains, bicycles were driven by rods, belts, or direct drive front wheels.

Like hardware, the bicycle was created in Europe.  Most developments were made in England, France, and Italy and eventually imported to the U.S.


1895 was the heart of the Victorian era, more specifically Period Revival and Queen Anne.  Ornate stamped brass, bronze and cast iron in famous patterns such as the "Windsor", "Roanoke", and "Ceylon".  And many countless other patterns which are lesser known.  Pictured below are a set of stamped brass Roanoke Doorknobs.

As with bicycles, certain manufactures marked the ages and carried production well into the 20th century. Sargent, one of the biggest producers of Victorian hardware, made strong beautiful latches, pulls, door knobs and other items. Other companies gaining momentum at this time were Corbin, Yale, Chicago, and Standard Plumbing.

1930's (a bit of a fast forward)


Almost all bicycles sold in the U.S. in this era were made in the U.S.  The Humber chain was still used, mostly by track racers, and the roller chain was now most common on bicycles produced for leisure riding.  At this time in the U.S. cars outsold bicycles 10 to 1, so most bicycles were ridden by teenagers who could not yet drive. However, in Europe, bicycle manufacturing and component design was booming.

The Schwinn & Company, determined that the American public would go wild about bicycles with the right approach, created "light weight" models equipped with multiple gears!  Predating the modern day derailleur was the internally geared hub.  These hubs had 2 speeds and a coaster, or back pedal, brake.  The New Departure was the the first widely sold multi-speed hub, and an important stepping stone to the modern day derailleur, which, today, goes up to 11 speeds on the rear wheel!

Still a skip tooth!

(Note: The first derailleurs were actually designed in France in the 1890's.)


This is the begin of the "Modern" era. Art Deco for everyone!  Hardware began changing, mostly around door hardware and latch and spring designs. The old mortise style latch was overshadowed by the new "tube latch."

The depression had left it's mark.  Mortise locks, with intricate internal springs and latches, and mostly brass plates, were left behind for cheaper plated steel tube latches that used a lot less materials to produce.  The Schlage company revolutionized door hardware by drilling out doors to fit tube latches instead of mortises. Dexter, Skillman, and Norwalk were the companies whose names were sought after in the 30's and 40's.

While bicycle sales were dwindling, having ebbed by 1905, hardware was still needed, used, and aesthetically relevant.  The ringed or circle patterns are a hallmark of the Deco era and seen on these Deco Doorknobs shown below are still considered classic  celebrated today!



Bicycles were still slow selling in the U.S. market, there was a small increase in bicycle sales after soldiers returned from war, and imported some Raleighs, but mostly bicycles were still bought and ridden by teenagers.  The Schwinn company would not give up so easily. In Europe, technological advancement in components was booming.  Schwinn put out the World Traveller, a touring bike with a Sturmey-Archer (British) 3 speed hub, lights, rack, the works!

And, because racing was popular in Europe and Japan, the Paramount racing bicycle.  This bicycle came as a single speed or a 3 speed internal hub, but derailleurs were about to make their mark from across both the Atlantic and the Pacific...

That's once good lookin' bike!

The automobile industry and rocket craze of the time influenced aesthetic of bicycles.

The Schwinn Panther melded the curves of the 1950's idyllic rocket and the contours of the Bel Air.


The influence of car and rocket design did not go unnoticed by the hardware designers of the time.

Known at the "Mid-Century Modern" ear, this was an era of satin bronze. An era where chrome left the bathroom and made it to the kitchen, and beyond! Some of the more established companies, such as Corbin and Sargent, were struggling with the changes of style of the time.  Weiser invented Kwikset which quickly became the industry standard.  Easy to key, easy to install, and cheap to produce, the other companies couldn't keep up.  Other companies to dominate the 50's were Hollymade and National which still produce today.

The Deco Style of the 30's was present at the beginning of the decade, and progressed to a more chunky application of chrome, bronze, and the Deco lines. The example shown below highlights the straight lines and hard angles common in an Art Deco Kitchen Set while below we see a shift to the more rounded lines and mis-matches finishes more common in the late 1950's. 

 Times were a-changin'!

1960's and 1970's


The 1960's and 1970's were the greatest bicycle boom in America.  Bicycle sales shot up as the 10 speed became all the rage.  Our friend Thorton's skip tooth chain and single speed was a thing of the past.  We now had 10 gears, modern derailleurs, and a 3/16" chain.  Bicycling for recreation, family past times, and competitive racing finally caught up the trends in Europe, popularity of European frames and components.

Simplex was the leading producer of low end derailleurs, and Campagnolo the leader in high end parts, as they still are today. Shimano was producing quality parts as well, and grew to lead the industry in engineering and technology. 

Schwinn was given a run for their money as bikes were shipped from Europe. Brands such as Bianchi, Puegot, Raleigh, and Motobecane became regular household names. The demand of the bicycle lead manufacturers to produce on a larger scale.  Competition for top designs continued to push the industry to higher standards. The 1960's and 70's were the era of mass production.



Companies were growing, the economy was booming, factories were multiplying, and production was cheap.  Weiser continued to be a top producer of hardware, and Westlock also came into popularity.  Parts were smaller, and cheaper than ever before, so the cost of servicing parts quickly out weighed the cost.  Disposable hardware became the norm and continued.  The 1960's and 70's focused on engineering finishes, and continuing to come up with cheap parts for changing aesthetics.

I hope this was a fun and informative jaunt through early ages of hardware, bicycle and production. It was certainly educational for me!  What do you think, dear readers?  Would you rather have a bicycle of yesteryear or are you in love will all the new technology? 



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