I’m writing a book about the US and UK cyclist organisations of the 1880s and 1890s which lobbied for good roads – and got them – before the motorcar came along and stole their thunder.
To research ‘Roads Were Not Built For Cars’ I’m poring over bicycle trade journals. Bicycle retailers have been fighting against sellers of cheap Bicycle Shaped Objects for at least 120 years. Tescos muscling in on your sales isn’t a new phenomenon: the cycle retailers of the 1890s also railed against the supermarkets of their day. When Specialized and other IBD-channel brands talk about protecting independent dealers, they’re echoing the concerns and sales pitches of similar bike brands in the 1890s.
Outing Bicycle said in an 1897 ad: "We don’t want our machines disgraced by associating them with sour kraut, pig iron and cheese sandwich dealers."
An editorial in US weekly trade magazine Cycling Life in the same year also railed against department stores, saying it was necessary to "check the evil before it becomes too great for suppression."
The magazine recommended the creation of a "separate classification to the bicycle sold by the department stores and thereby distinguish it from other machines."
Just as bike sales over the the internet have impinged on modern dealers, the bike shops of the late 1890s faced similar challenges. In 1895, Sears, Roebuck & Co. of the US was producing a 532-page mail order catalogue.
Today, Chain Reaction Cycles sends bike kit all over the world; in the 1890s, so did Sears Roebuck & Co. It claimed it was "The Cheapest Supply House On Earth" and that "Our Trade Reaches Around The World’".
The late 1890s were a golden age for bicycles. When the middle classes started buying bicycles in big numbers, the number of specialist bicycle retailers increased to cope with demand. In 1897 America manufactured 1 million bicycles; England made 600,000.
Bicycle shop owners made a tidy living up to 1897. After this the ‘bicycle boom’ imploded and profits collapsed as department stores and mail order retailers started selling bicycles at knockdown prices. In 1897, the standard price for a bicycle was $100; by 1900, Sears Roebuck & Co. was selling a bicycle for as low as $7.50.
Yet despite the market-warping power of the early mail order giants – they were the Amazon.com’s of their day – not all bike shops went under. Take comfort from the fact that Pearson Cycles of Sutton, West London and Howes of Cambridge have seen it all before, and are still trading, and are still owned by the same families. Pearson Cycles was founded as a blacksmiths in 1840; Howes Cycles started life in 1860 as a wheelwright.
Pearson Cycles is still in the same building as the original blacksmith’s forge, albeit much renovated. Brothers Guy and Will Pearson – the fifth generation from the family to run the shop – recently opened a new branch, a few miles away in Sheen.
“We have a slow roll-out programme; one store every 150 years,” Will jokes.