Bicycles had been around, in one form or another, since the early nineteenth century, when there was a contraption called the hobby horse--a simple rolling device with two equal- size wheels but no pedals. They were more of a curiosity than anything else, but the idea of a human-propelled vehicle stayed around. As time went on, pedals were added, and great experimentation took place with both the size and number of wheels. Before the bicycle was perfected, the world saw such oddities as adult tricycles and high wheeler bikes a man practically needed a ladder to get up on.

Finally, around 1885, the modern bicycle emerged--same-size wheels, pedals to move the back one, low enough to the ground you wouldn't break your neck if you hit a rock. Soon, everyone had to have one.

The turn of the century was the high point of popularity for the bicycle. More than a million were sold every year. Bicycle clubs were formed, made long-distance treks and posed for pictures looking dapper in a root-beer-float sort of way. Then the Depression hit. By 1932, interest in bicycles had declined precipitously. Only 194,000 were sold. These facts come from Jim Hurd, official historian at Schwinn headquarters in Chicago, who refers to himself with more accuracy than modesty as "an encyclopedia on bicycles."

Ironically, though, the decline in purchasing during the Depression set the stage for what has become the modern way of selling, in which image and not reality, the sizzle and not the steak, moves the product out of the store. Enter the manipulations of modern advertising, the idea of "model years" in cars and the all-important distinctions between a 1958 and a 1959 Cadillac.

What American manufacturers did to counteract the Depression was to hire designers to make their products look interesting. Four names immediately came to the forefront--Norman Bel Geddes, Raymond Loewy, Henry Dreyfuss, and Walter Dorwin Teague. Before Loewy got hold of it in 1934, the Sears Coldspot refrigerator looked like a box on legs. But after his transforming touch, it was something that could be collected by the Museum of Modern Art.

During the Streamlined Decade, everything was sleek, as if all the sharp edges had been blown off in a wind tunnel. Streamlining screamed, "I am modern," and suddenly everything else looked old-fashioned. Some kind of apogee was reached with the streamlined pencil sharpener, looking fully capable of speeds exceeding the cars of that time.

But it was only a look. When Chrysler applied aerodynamic principles to the automobile, and came up with the Airflow in 1934, no one liked the vehicle. The public wanted the appearance of streamlining, not the reality of it.

The streamlined look of the almost unliftable Schwinn bikes of the 1950s originates in this era. The first "modern" Schwinn was the Aerocycle, manufactured in 1932 with great hoopla and described in advertisements as "built like an aeroplane fuselage."

"Schwinn rode out of the Depression on it," says Jim Hurd.
The Chicago bike maker did something even more significant. Almost universally, the bikes of the nineteenth century were ridden by adults. In the 1930s, for the first time, a bicycle was designed especially for children, and with a brilliant insight into the juvenile psyche.

Schwinn had owned the Henderson and Excelsior motorcycle companies until the early 1930s, and a motorcycle's manly image is clearly the source for the later bicycles. The gas tank becomes the horn tank. The spring fork that cushions the motorcycle's front tire is carried over. The luggage rack over the back wheel is similarly inspired. "When you're twelve, the main thing you want to be is sixteen," says Hurd.

The Aerocycle set the pattern for Schwinn bicycles until the end of the 1950s, when thin-tired models with hand brakes, often of English origin, pushed the balloon-tire models off center stage. For people who look at history in terms of technological advances, the popularity of Schwinn balloon-tire bikes had always flown in the face of reason.

"In my estimation, there were no bicycles from the balloon-tire era that had any importance whatsoever in moving forward the technology of the bicycle," says Don Adams of the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. "The balloon-tire bike was retrogressive. It was very heavy. It doesn't lend itself to a proper riding position. It reintroduced problems that had already been solved." As examples, he says, "The derailleur and lightweight bikes were available as early as the 1890s."

Adams cleaves to these beliefs because he is more interested in bicycle history than in, well, being cool. There are two schools of thought in bicycle collecting. One collects the true classics, manufactured before 1930. These are the people who will pay thousands for an 1888 Eagle--a high-wheeler with the larger wheel in the back--and go into ecstasy at the sight of an adult tricycle like the one Queen Victoria once owned.

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Anna Dooling