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Chicago and the Bicycle

From issue 83 • Words by James Startt w/images from Design Museum of Chicago / Yaro Banduro

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It’s an often-overlooked fact that the City of Chicago was once a hub for cycling in America. Long before cyclists flocked to Colorado to ride at high altitude or to California for its mild climate and varied terrain, there was Chicago. While the racing scene was dominated by the revered Chicago Six-Day race between 1915 and 1957, it was the bicycle industry as a whole that was the focus of the sport in this Midwest capital. Driven by industry giant Schwinn, Chicago produced more bikes per year than any other city for decades leading up to and into the 20th century. And while this once ubiquitous brand may have been an American industry leader, it was just one of many cycling companies to call Chicago home at the turn of the past century.

This rich tradition is currently on display at the Design Museum of Chicago with its fascinating exhibit: “Keep Moving: Designing Chicago’s Bicycle Culture.” The exhibition focuses on the history of bicycle manufacturing in Chicago and the city’s role in shaping the bicycle as a symbol of America, along with the city’s contemporary cycling culture. It runs until March 3, 2019.

Visitors have the opportunity to explore model bicycles, stereoscope images, archived magazines, catalogs and advertisements, while a variety of talks and events allow current Chicago cyclists and community members to discuss the state of the sport in the Windy City today. In many ways, the Chicago bicycle industry reflected the community’s spirit at a crucial juncture in history, when the city was rebounding from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and a vibrant industrial spirit was key to the city’s rebirth.

“Chicago’s industrial tradition really absorbed the bicycle industry, very quickly making it the bicycle production center in the U.S.,” says Lauren Boegen, Design Museum of Chicago’s executive director of operations and collections, and curator of the exhibition. “At one point, Chicago was producing about two-thirds of the bicycles in America. One good example was a company known as Western Wheel Works. Before the Chicago Fire, they were Western Toy, but after the factory burnt down in the fire they came back as Western Wheel Works. They were manufacturing something like 70,000 bikes a year at one point. There was just so much manufacturing already here in Chicago, and it was very easy for them to create a bicycle division or department. But the inverse was also true. When this bicycle industry started to dry up, it didn’t create a crisis in Chicago. Many of the companies simply shifted to making other products.”

In addition to its manufacturing history, Chicago reinvented itself architecturally after the Great Fire decimated the town. The Chicago School of Architecture imposed an undeniable modern edge to the city as it pioneered the modern skyscraper. “Form follows function,” Louis Sullivan, the movement’s first leader once said. And while Sullivan was talking about architecture, this mantra in some ways embodied the pragmatic outlook of Chicago’s bicycle industry.

“Form followed function on the bicycle, but mostly from a commercial point of view,” Boegen says. “The industry was firstly trying to find a way to bring more people into the cycling market. So, rather quickly, the industry started designing bikes that would attract a greater public.”

Boegen admits, however, that marketing initiatives at times overwhelmed more pragmatic questions. Sometimes function very much seemed to follow form, especially as the industry attempted to appeal to the baby-boomer market after World War II. “You see companies like Schwinn coming up with bike designs that would capture the youth market, with bikes like the Stingray or the Manta Ray [one fine Manta Ray is even included in the exhibit].” The Chopper was perhaps not the most energy-efficient or ergonomically intelligent bike ever made, such designs nevertheless retained cycling’s cool edge and allowed Schwinn to touch the imagination of American youth for generations to come.

Such cultural questions are also a key element to the exhibit and, in addition to design, the exhibit examines the bike as a symbol and how, in a very short time, this symbol identified class, gender and freedom in different communities.

“You’ve got this new product that comes out on the market and it has an immediate impact on class,” Boegen says. “The first bikes were not inexpensive. Back in the 1880s for example, a bike might well cost the equivalent of $2,000 today. That’s not inexpensive. So first you have to have clients with a certain expendable income. And then you need someone with the time to learn and ride this new thing. In addition, when the bicycle first came out, clients also needed to have a bit of originality. I mean, riding a Penny Farthing was not like riding a horse at the time. You could look a little silly. So you are looking at a person that is aware of the public perception they are cultivating.”

Boegen also points out that the bicycle represents different things in different cultures and locations. “Somewhere between the World Wars or just after World War II, the focus of the bike really changes between the U.S. and Europe. In the U.S., it really becomes a leisure item while in Europe it becomes much more of a transportation product.”

And while much of the exhibit examines the past, it also addresses the city’s role in the 21st century. “The industrial tradition still exists today,” Boegen says, “with companies like SRAM, which is very much a Chicago-based company. It is less popularized than Schwinn—components are much more specific, but they still have a huge impact on the industry.”

Finally, Boegen says that she wants people to understand the depth and breadth of bike design and how it eventually ties into specific periods, cultures and places. “Over time, Chicago has held a unique place in cycling,” she says. “It is interesting to see how the bicycle has come back into society and popular culture. And I am curious to see how it will adapt to shifts in culture and society in the future.”

Design Museum of Chicago can be found at Expo 72, 72 East Randolph, downtown in the heart of the Chicago Loop. For further information please visit the museum’s website: