Tracking down information on these bikes has not been straightforward, as Brian Reynolds, a fan of that era points out, “There were hundreds of bike brands at the TOC (turn of the century) and for many there is very little information available.” But that in itself is symptomatic of how popular cycling was: the very lack of rarity and multiplicity of makes indicates how widespread the practice had become.
Yet however popular cycling was as a sport, however much that sport cast a mirror on the society beyond it, socially by the late 1900s the bicycle had already been fully overtaken by the automobile as the most popular means of transport. Almost as quickly as it had started, the lights went out on the golden age of American cycling. Fortunately, relics such as these bikes remain to remind us of a unique historical moment for cycling, as a popular activity and as a sport.
The Davis Sewing Machine company that made the Dayton Flyer has been described as the biggest bike producer in the whole of the USA in the late 1890s, with branches as far afield as London, Chicago, Paris and New York as well as its base in (unsurprisingly) Dayton, Ohio. Yet if the name of the business behind the Dayton bikes sounds surprising to modern readers given it is a sewing machine company, at the time it reveals a very familiar story in American industry at the time and for cycling in particular.
The Dayton serves as a great example of how many of the bike businesses operated, because dozens if not hundreds of bike manufacturers in the United States in that decade had started out making other smallscale ‘household’ machinery, like typewriters or sewing machines or - as we shall see in the case of the Racycle - agricultural instruments like seed drills.
But the rise in demand for bikes in the 1890s saw many companies switch over to bike-manufacturing, given the adaptions of the castings and machinery needed for such a change were relatively easy, quick and cheap. Then when bike sales started to drop, the more enterprising moved onto motorbikes and cars, or (when the Great War broke out), weapons. And in the case of another, famous, 1890s bike manufacturer, the Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur used the money from selling their bike business to build planes - and make some history in the process.
Regarding, Dayton Bicycles and its producer, The Davis Sewing Machine Company, the switch from making sewing machines to bikes also included a major geographical upheaval for the business.
Initially based in Watertown, New York, the first piece in the jigsaw for the change of location fell into place when the Davis Sewing Machine Company was purchased by entrepreneur George Huffman in 1888 after the previous owners lost a court case over patents. The following year, as part of a deal involving both the city of Dayton board of trade and Huffman, the Davis Sewing Machine company was paid 50,000 dollars to move to Dayton. The city was situated in a USA bike manufacturing heartland, the state of Ohio.
It was not just the company itself that shifted, many employees from Watertown upped sticks too and for years Huffman paid his employees a subsidy for the 900-kilometre rail journey between the two cities. That act of generosity endured until he discovered they were using the cheap tickets to go on picnics rather than to see their relatives, at which point the subsidy abruptly dried up!
The Davis Sewing Machine company had several advantages when it came to bike making, which they started doing in 1892, just when the ‘bike boom’ began to gather pace in the USA. One was that they were pioneers in their own field, patenting - for example, a foot-powered ‘friction clutch’, pulley and brake system for their machines, using a lever to alter sewing machine production speed by as much as 33 percent. The machinery needed to create clutches, for example, was easily adaptable afterwards to making bikes.
With their bikes named after the adopted city of Dayton but initially provided to other bike suppliers, by 1895, Dayton were so successful they were providing wheels to 20 different mail order companies. Then by 1897, as can be seen on the plaque on the front of this frame, the Davis Sewing Machine company were creating their own brands and were reportedly the largest manufacturer of the United States or even (so the company’s own publicity claimed) the world.
That claim is hard to prove or (as the company’s publicity department probably knew) equally hard to disprove, at its peak. But the main factory in Dayton was certainly enormous. It comprised six squares acres of land and had 60 separate buildings, 2000 workers and was turning out 600 bikes daily.
It’s worth noting that for all this was a phenomenal output, it dims into comparison with the factory's making 128,000 sewing machines a year. One distinguishing feature of Dayton bikes is that they were mainly painted red or crimson, although this model is obviously an exception to the rule.
By 1916, the Davis Sewing Company produced bikes under a dozen different names: the National, Duro, Dixie Flyer, LaFrance, Daytonia, Shrayer, Ohio, Shapleish Hardware, Western Auto and Western Flyer. But their expansion into making Harley Davidson parts during the Great War for the Army and dependence on intermediaries such as the Sears mail order catalogue (famous for selling everything from houses to tyres, and essentially ‘the Amazon’ of its era), left it very vulnerable should a single contract be lost - which then happened in 1919.
But after the Davis Sewing Machine company went bankrupt in 1922, George’s son Horace astutely used the money from the liquidation to buy the machinery and factory. Rebranded as Huffy, the company’s links with bikes continues through to the present day, producing one of the best-known budget-price US models in the business as well as motorbikes and cars. The factory, though, was relocated to Mexico in 1999 and now only the offices remain in Dayton. But the phrase, ‘130 years of fun’ remains on its website and is a reminder of how far back the company’s roots stretch.
A few more details of Dayton bikes and what they were like emerged recently in a blog post article published by the National Museum of American History (NMAH) library, part of the Smithsonian Libraries in Washington DC. This analyses one of the Davis Sewing Machine company’s 1890s bike catalogues that the NMAH has in its Trade Literature Collection.
Described as having “graceful lines and beautiful design” and “combining extreme strength with perfect symmetry,” the catalogue highlights various key attractions of the bike: the three layers of wood used in the rims, the handlebars that can be switched to multiple positions for day-to-day use (as well as there being different racing handlebar options), a solid top plate for the front fork “removing all possible weakness at this point,” processed “needle steel” for their wheel spokes, (32 in the front, 36 in the back) “furnishing necessary resistance to the most severe strain without that degree of hardness that would render them brittle.” And so on and so on.
There is also a picture of two racing bikes, both very similar to the Flyer and highly likely to have been its precursor. One is named the Model-H Track Racer, a midrange model going for 100 dollars (the cheapest bikes of the time went for around 50 dollars, the most expensive around 125), offering three different fixed gear options. But the most striking features are the wheels, which it proudly claims are “the most rigid racing wheel on earth, with absolutely no give under the hardest sprint.” It also warns that the wheels are for ‘track use only’.
The second is a road bike, the Model-B Roadster, also with a price tag of 100 dollars, and weighing at roughly 10-12 kilos, presumably depending on the choice of saddles, pedals and tyres. Although subject to confirmation, the design of the Flyer, produced two years later, would appear to be an amalgam of both these bikes.
Scattered throughout the pages of this catalogue are a variety of illustrations showing the bicycle in action with individuals riding in such places as the beach, park, or city.’ In a reminder of how bikes managed to come to symbolize individual freedom, these include one entitled ‘the elopement’, showing a man and a woman riding a tandem, while in one corner, an individual giving chases in a carriage. But despite using a whip for his horse to try to keep up with them, it is in vain. At the time, Dayton bikes provided the fastest getaway on earth - or so the catalogue said, and who are we to disagree?
The HA Lozier company in Cleveland, Ohio was yet another one of the bikemaking businesses that had its heyday in the 1890s, to the point where for three years 1899-1902 (spanning the time when this bike was made), Henry Abraham Lozier’s company formed part of a bigger association of 44 companies known as the American Bike Company.
Just like the Dayton company and so many other businesses of the time, too, Lozier began by selling sewing machines but as cycling’s popularity soared they could see that bike manufacturing was the way to go. After starting his business in Cleveland, H.A: Lozier bought a sewing machine factory in Toledo, Ohio to produce his bikes, and then took over another factory in Toronto, Canada in the suburb where four railway lines came together, known as the Junction. His brother-in-law Edwin ran the Canadian operation, becoming a director of the Canada Cycle & Motor (CCM) company when it took over that branch in 1899.
Running all the way through to 1993, the CCM is described on the Vintage CCM website as ‘the quintessential Canadian company. For years growing up in Canada meant riding its bikes in summer and wearing its skates in winter. Its logo was as much a part of the Canadian psyche as the seasons themselves. Unfortunately, for far too long too little has been known about the company, its history and its products.”
According to one of the CCM members with the handle locomotion, the bike in question now at KOERS can be identified as an “American-made 1901 Cleveland model A-1, classified as an entry [beginner’s] model. Locomotion also speculates that it may well have been repainted given “the paint patina doesn't match the patina on the nickel, and around the headbadge, the paint is perfect.”
But while the stem, bars, saddle, rims and hubs according to locomotion may not be the originals, he/she concludes that “the rest of the bike looks great as-is.”
Comparatively little specific information is available about this bike, except that the Black Diamonds of this era were made in Buffalo, New York at the Henry Zahn factory, which was operational by the early 1900s and which closed in 1920. However, a series of advertisements for the Black Diamond in the local Buffalo media, as well as an obituary, kindly sent by the CABE forum member 'Blue Streak', do provide a few more clues.
The Black Diamond brand appears to have been an independent company, with Henry Zahn, described in his obituary as a former prominent bike manufacturer, clearly a if not the driving force in the business as it appears to have closed when he retired.
As such, rather than the major brands like the Cleveland or Racycle, with the Black Diamond we can appreciate how a small-scale bike manufacturer producing bikes that were functional rather than overly stylish operated at the time, mostly aimed at the ordinary worker rather than anybody keen on using the bike as a leisure activity.
The times his business open, too, till 10 at night, strongly suggest this was a place visited by clients who'd worked most of the day in offices or factories and only had the last part of the evening as free time to do some bike shopping.
Run out of Zahn's business in the middle of Buffalo on Broadway street - nothing like the much more famous New York Broadway, rather a series of two-storey houses and red-brick warehouses set back from the road, each with large gardens - Zahn's emphasis in the advertisements is on the cheapness and relative of bikes as a form of urban transport.
'Much cheaper than carfare [trams] and you get there in less time' runs one 1908 ad before providing the actual mathematical evidence, that cars [trams] cost 10 cents a ride and over a year sum up to 36.5 dollars. Put like that, and with the five different models Zahn offers going for anything between 25 dollars and 45 for the most expensive, the money saving possibilities are clear.
What is striking, too, is both the unchanging design of the bikes and the relative stability of the prices, dropping for a few years to 20 dollars for the cheapest but with the racer, the most expensive, staying steady at 45 dollars all the way through to 1916, the year before the USA joined the First World War. The down payment system, too, remained essentially unchanged.
Henry Zahn and the Black Diamond had clearly found their market and saw no sense in 'rocking the boat' with experimentation - a sign, perhaps, of how consolidated at least part of the bike market had become in the USA, and how it did not need, by that point, to be constantly pushing back the technological and commercial frontiers in order for a small-to-medium size bike manufacturing company to survive.
With thanks to Ian Austen, Brian Doan, Lennard Zinn, Andy Hood, everybody at CCM but particularly Brian Reynolds, everybody at CABE including the forum member ‘locomotion’, the Smithsonian Museum and particularly Alexia MacClain at the National Museum of American History Library, the Lotto-Dstny team, but particularly mechanic Noel Vermeesch, who drove these bikes in the team truck all the way from Spain to Belgium; Juan Ignacio Romero.
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