Very little information is available about this specific bike, except that the Newports of this era were made by a US company called Snyder&Fisher Manufacturer in the small town of Little Falls, New York. A portrait of Homer Peter Snyder, the owner of the company, written by Jessie Snyder Thompson Huberty, his great-granddaughter, for mylittlefalls.com grants us some insight. As the article highlights, not only does bike manufacturing provide a mirror on American social and industrial history, but Snyder himself another embodiment of the American do-it-yourself Dream.
As Jessie writes, “A young man from nearby Amsterdam, H.P. Snyder arrived in Little Falls with nothing but a desire to do something, build something.” At the time he reached the town, Little Falls was experienced a huge boom in factory building, partly thanks to its location next to a transport artery, the Erie Canal. H.P., as he was known, had left school aged nine, and started work in one of the many knitting mills, and then moved to Little Falls aged 23, where he worked his way up to manager.
Having turned around the fortunes of one knitting mill producer, H.P. and Michael G . Fisher hit on an attachment which as Jessie writes, “considerably improved the texture of fabrics. They went on to form a partnership, the Snyder Fisher Company, selling their machines at first in Herkimer County, then throughout New York State, and eventually, around the entire nation.”
Snyder and Fisher also moved into bicycle manufacturing, with two of their earliest models called the Newport Swell and the Newport Belle. By 1894, after the bike now in KOERS possession had been made, H.P. bought out his partner, Michael Fisher and the company then endured until 1972. Agreements were also reached, Jessie writes in the LittleFalls newspaper with the “DeLancey Harris and the D.P. Harris Co. to produce Rollfast Bicycles.”
In turn and in time, Rollfast became one of the largest US bike manufacturers, with their most successful products being the popular (and now much sought-after) Hopalong Cassidy models, named after the fictional cowboy hero who was one of the USA’s best-known figures of popular literature for over half a century. According to Jessie Snyder, her great-grandfather’s company “also manufactured bicycles for Montgomery Ward and Western Auto under their own label, Excelsior” - another classic American model from the 1920s and 1930s.
As a businessman with a keen interest in both local and national politics, after his company had reached full economic stability, H.P. then ran for Congress for the Republican party, where he represented Herkimer County for a decade, being responsible for the Indian Citizen Act of 1924, also known as the Snyder Act, which granted US citizenship to all Native American Indians. After leaving politics, Snyder returned to Little Falls and running his business, dying in 1937.
The original, anonymous donator describes these Racycle bikes as “the cream of American racing bicycles from the 1900 periods, which was the golden age of American bike racing.” Certainly the advertisements of the era for Racycles were convinced of their worth: an advert from 1908 for Racycles calls them categorically ‘the best in the world’ and insists that their “high grade wheels” create less pressure on their crank hangars, enabling them to be pedalled with less energy “than any ordinary bicycle.”
As the advertisement proudly analyses, having multiple ‘drop forged parts of the bike - drop forging being a process which ensures the grain of the steel is strengthened through stretching and aligning - and not sparing the extra cost of ‘cold drawn steel’ to ensure greater durability of the frames all added to the intrinsic value of these bikes. They are, the advertisement insisted “nearly as unbreakable as money, material and workmanship will permit."
They were certainly very successful, being manufactured mainly in the States but in other parts of North America and Europe as well. As Racycle collector and researcher Brian Doan tells KOERS “most Racycles were made at the Miami Cycle and Manufacturing Company factory in Middletown, Ohio, which is on the Miami River. Some were built under license in Canada and in Europe.” That was just the production: outlets for the bikes were as far afield as Belgium and Mexico as well as across the United States.
Regarding these specific models, Doan points out that, “Happily, both machines have their model number badges. Racycle model numbers tell us both the year and model of the bicycle. The last numeral identifies the model and the first numeral or two match the number of years that Racycles had been in production when the bicycle was produced. (Production started in 1896.) Thus 130-series models were made in the 13th year of production, which was 1908, and 170-series models were made in 1912, the 17th year of production.”
Doan concludes: You have the two top-of-the-line Racycles. Congratulations! Though I have seen photos of quite a few Pacemakers (I suspect they have survived fairly well because they are so unusual), but I have seen only one other racing model. Coincidently, it also was from 1908. I've never seen wooden handlebars before on a Racycle.”
The reason why the Racycle came into being is symptomatic of the fast-moving industrial world of the times. According to a series of articles published on the CABE [Classic and Antique Bicycle Exchange] website, a valued website for vintage North American bikes, Paul J Sorg, the owner of the Miami Cycle and Manufacturing company, was Middletown’s leading industrialist of the era, with undertakings in bikes, tobacco, railways, paper and banking.
His initial purchase of a grain drill company gave him a base in Middletown and (as we have seen with the sewing machine origins of the Dayton) the type of operating equipment that could be easily adapted to produce other technologically complex machinery - like bikes. And as an independent manufacturer with tobacco interests, and by now a millionaire businessman (and congressman, like the maker of the Newport), Sorg was to cross paths with one of the largest monopolies on the product in the USA, the American Tobacco Company.
According to the CABE article, when the ATC was in the process of buying out Sorg’s independent producer, it was all part of the so-called ‘tobacco wars’ of the era, where in the battle for a rapidly growing consumption of packaged, processed tobacco, a relatively new product at the time, companies were bought and sold at lightning pace. But another element in the tobacco wars to try and maintain customer loyalty was the inclusion of tokens in cigarette packets that could be used to buy reduced-price products from a company catalogue.
And Sorg and the ATC also reached an agreement that in the case of their company catalogue, one of the products for sale would be: bikes. To that end, the Racycle boom began. An article in the CABE forum includes a press cutting from the Kentucky Courier-Journal newspaper from 1895, outlining how a ‘local tobacco company’ had placed an order for 35,000 bikes to be sold as “premiums” for their purchasers. The article claims this was the largest ever single order in the world of bikes, and production began in 1896.
Time and again, it is possible to see how the bike manufacturing industry in the USA in the 1890s and the 1900s and consequently these six representatives of it reflected massive social and cultural changes of the era. Sport and leisure activities often act as a mirror to social change in any country, but on this occasion the connections were exceptionally deep.
The owners and manufacturers themselves and how they encapsulated the American industrial dynamic and ethics of the time are just one facet of that. The bike production of that era and the bike users themselves were another indication of how American society was changing and expanding, from an agricultural-based nation to an industrial one, from a more conservative, socially rigid and intolerant one to something more similar to the kind of ‘broad church’ US society - albeit far from perfect and often ‘in reverse gear’ - that we recognise today.
Time moved on quickly for many of these companies and having invested, and benefited, considerably from the bike boom, they were equally quick to move onto the next consumer craze: automobiles. Not all of these investments worked or course: forums in CABE discussing the Miami Cycle and Manufacturing company contain a photograph of various top-hatted and besuited businessmen on board a Ramapaugh, a steam-powered car named after a local Native American chief of which only three were made. But the company’s move into high-end motorbikes, such as the Flying Merkel, was far more successful.
Either way, it was a symptom of how fast the markets were moving, and, as ever, how industrialists had few criteria beyond the financial well-being of their companies when it came to maintaining or ending products like bikes. Such rapid trends sound all too familiar to our ears, battered as they are with marketers offers. But like it or not, it’s true to say that the 1890s laid many of the foundations of modern American society. And albeit tiny cogs in a much vaster machine, these bikes were a part of it.
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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