Antique Cycle Chic (1900s-1940s)

Antique Cycle Chic (1900s-1940s)

While I waited for a chance to bring Bert-the-Bike home and install my Christmas goodies on Mary Poppins, I creeped eBay looking for Objects Of Interest. It turns out that there are lots of wonderful early photographic portraits of stylish women with their rod-brake loop-frame lovelies available. Naturally I’m now a bit obsessed with them.

In the early 20th Century, getting a professional photographic portrait done was a Really Big Deal, and I imagine that having it done with your bicycle started as a declaration of independence, then as cameras became more common it gradually became more like a rite-of-passage (like teenagers getting a photo taken in the driver’s seat of their first car now). I love that they’re dressed in their finest suits and hats – oh, what hats! – and that they’re looking so serious and pensive for the camera. I also love the later, more candid shots, which show how practical loop-frame roadsters with fenders, chaincases, and skirtguards were for riding in everyday clothes – but the early studio photographs with carpets and curtains are awesomely incongruous. Sometimes you can learn details about the bikes themselves, like how the skirtguards attached or how high the seats were set (no way could these girls put a flat foot on the ground, like my parents taught me was necessary – that must be a cruiser-bike thing).

These real-photo picture-postcards all came from eBay sellers. I scanned them on grayscale (some are actually sepia) at high resolution, which is like having a magnifying glass, then cropped them a bit and adjusted the fill light, highlights, and shadows so they weren’t quite so dark.

This studio portrait was taken in about 1910 and is labelled R. Guilleminot, Boespflug et Cie. – Paris. Check out her elaborate hat! This is definitely a corseted dress, and when you zoom in you can see she’s wearing (lace?) gloves, as often seems to be the case in photos of Victorian and Edwardian ladies. There’s a tantalizing glimpse of chainwheel and a clear view of the headbadge’s shape, so maybe someone who knows the continental makers can identify her bicycle.

Also Edwardian, but taken in England (the back of the card says it was taken by Valentine of Canterbury and Guildford). Great gloves, and I love the way she’s tied her hat on with a long sheer scarf. The skirtguards attach both in front of and behind the fork, and seem to be tied in groups of three cords. I can’t read the mark on the chaincase, but perhaps a collector can tell us who made her sweet ride?

Another English card, with “Mother” handwritten on the back. Her straw boater and ribbon tie with pin are great, the blouse is polka-dotted, and she’s wearing dark (leather?) gloves. What looks like a smudge on her forehead is actually wispy bangs. The skirtguard looks like it might be made of wire instead of cord, and I think her rear fender is chromed. Look at that quadrant shifter – swoon.

This pretty lady has a gorgeous netted skirtguard. Divine pleats on her dress, and charming layering of necklaces, but what I’d most like are frameless glasses like hers. Notice that she’s not wearing gloves. The back of the postcard has a handwritten date of 23 Novembre 1918 and other markings in French:

If I’m reading the handwriting correctly, it translates as, “23 years old” (not shown) and “A souvenir of beautiful days passed (adverb?) in Veron – H. LaForge”. (Maybe someone whose French skills surpass mine can help me with that word?)

This is a 1920s portait of a ‘sportswoman’, according to the seller. I love her flapper bob with pearl teardrop earrings, and the slightly rumpled pinstriped jacket and matching cap – which look almost like they might be her boyfriend’s. Her dress might be seersucker, and has a couple of dirt smudges, probably acquired while riding to this destination. Is that a lucite bangle? The back of the card is unmarked except for CARTE POSTALE, Correspondance, and Adresse – so she must also be French.

Closeup of her netted skirtguard.

I covet these German girls’ cloche hats and swingy coats. Photograph (the only one that isn’t an RPPC) taken in the 1930s, according to the seller.

I love this young lady’s confident pose, the cardigan with mother-of-pearl buttons, matching hat, and long pearl drop earrings.

She seems to be wearing culottes, stockings, and ankle-high boots. Her bicycle has front-rod-brake handlebars, but where are the rods? Is that little flap between the front tire and the mudguard the braking surface? The logo on the chaincase says Brennabor, who were originally a prewar manufacturer of bicycles, motorcycles, and automobiles in Brandenburg, Germany, and at some point became a Dutch-based brand instead. I’d guess she’s from the 1930s-40s, based on what she’s wearing, but the American seller didn’t give any information to help date it. The postcard only has “Foto Bayer” (that’s German) printed on the back, and two handwritten words: Kaaza (I think?), Kaan (a town in Rheinland-Pfalz).


Closeup of the Brennabor chaincase and netted skirtguard.

You can find more such photos on eBay or on Flikr by using the search terms “vintage”, “bicycle”, and “lady” or “woman”. Sadly most of the Flikr ones are All Rights Reserved, so I can only link to my favorites: 1895Edwardian, Edwardian, 1911, 1927, 1930s-40s slacks, 1966 culottes. Do follow the links – all these ladies and their steeds are magnificent. One of the commenters on one of these suggests that the girl is just there as window-dressing, since she obviously couldn’t ride dressed like that. Isn’t it telling that nobody (to date) has challenged his assumption in the comments?

This has me fantasizing about having a girly lets-dress-up bike meetup, in the Spring or early Summer, before it gets too hot, with a photo booth so we can all have great photos taken of ourselves with our steeds…

5 thoughts on “Antique Cycle Chic (1900s-1940s)

  1. I think some German bikes used a single rod brake on the front wheel. The rod went down the head tube and pushed a shoe directly on the tire. I’ve never seen one, just read about it, but that may be the answer to your q. about where the rods are.

  2. @lauard – Of course! Thanks for figuring that out!

    Grant – ah. What a clever way to build it! I suppose it might have made maintenance more difficult to have the rods inside the head tube?

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