New-York Historical Society

The “Golden Age of Bicycling” Account Book

If you haven’t already heard, May is bike month so it’s the perfect time to talk about an interesting 1898-1899 account book that we have here at the Society.

Cyclists during the Golden Age of the bicycle outside Grant’s Tomb on Riverside Drive, 1898. Subject File (PR 068)

The safety bicycle — the design of those ridden in the photograph above — was first produced in the 1870s and began to replace the penny farthing (two wheels of noticeably different sizes) in the late 1880s. By the 1890s its popularity had grown into a bicycling sensation with 2 million sold in 1897 alone, leaving little question as to why it is commonly known as the “Golden Age” of the bicycle.

Page 197 of the M. R. Co. account book showing orders from 27-28 May 1898. M.R. Co. Sales Book (MS 745)

Identified only as “M.R. Co.”, an 1890s business directory definitely suggests it was rubber company but given the number with those initials which one remains a mystery. That aside, being in the rubber business in a time when cycling was king, M.R. Co. was heavily involved in selling bike parts and accessories.

Order by Arnold, Schwinn & Co. for Mens and Ladies tool bags, 14 March 1898. M.R. Co. Sales Book (MS 745)

Account books by their nature tend not to be immediately arresting, yet in aggregation the transactions often tell their own story. This one confirms that the bicycle was truly a national fad. Although the east coast is well represented, M.R. Co. sold to hardware stores, bicycling manufacturers, sporting goods stores, department stores and trade catalogs from all over the country with orders coming from as far away as Alabama, Kentucky, South Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, Illinois, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Colorado, California, Texas, and even Canada.

While most have long since disappeared, there are a few companies we still recognize today, including Sears, Roebuck Co., Gimbel Bros., Arnold Schwinn & Co., and A.G. Spalding (today probably know more for their basketballs than bikes). And then there are those that stick in out just a bit like the “Harrisburg Cycle & Typewriter Co.” (see page 197 image above).

Trade catalog for A.G. Spalding & Bros. bicycle products, 1892.

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