Sunday, March 11, 2012

Cowboys on Bikes? A View in 1897

The other day I was looking for this in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog and found something else. But after some more browsing of search results I eventually found (again) this rather fanciful depiction of a cowboy of the 1890s with a faithful bicycle rather than a utilitarian horse.

As far as I know, this has no connection with western reality at all

Title: Golden Gate, sunset in the Yellowstone Park
Creator(s): Knapp Co. Lith.,
Date Created/Published: c1897.
Medium: 1 print : chromolithograph.
Summary: Print shows a man, with a bicycle to which a rifle is fastened, standing on a mountain path, watching a stagecoach on a lower trail; waterfalls in background.
Full record

On the rock it says (somewhat obscured): The Recollection of Quality Remains Long After the Price Has Been Forgotten.
Update: A reader (another Mike) sent an email (since he couldn't get the comments to work) providing a possible explanation: I am wondering if the "cowboy" in the 1897 Yellowstone lithograph you posted on your blog might be associated with the Spaulding Company. In 1896, an Army lieutenant named Moss and eight soldiers, all part of the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps rode their bicycles in the Park as part of an experiment for the Army. They rode donated Spaulding wheels and Moss wrote a booklet about the trip that was published by Spaulding. The inscription on the rock makes me think the lithograph was an ad. You might enjoy a blog I've created about Moss and the riders. It can be reached at
The one depiction of western cowboy-type characters of this period with a bicycle would be the "bicycle scene" with Paul Newman and Catherine Ross in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which depicts this time exactly, the late 1890s. However the bicycle in that scene is a diversion, for entertainment, and not part a means of serious transport. (Just the opposite, it is an opportunity for lighthearted amusement.)

Bicycle scene from "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"

The bicycle does look like a bicycle from this period would have (or could have) appeared - in fact, the basic bicycle is much the same as the one with the cowboy, above, except for the rifle and the sleeping roll. Well, and the cowboy's bike has a brake for the front wheel.

The one likely inaccuracy is that Butch's bike would have likely either had a fixed gear (that is, when the rear wheel turns, the pedals turn and vice-versa) or if it had a freewheel hub of some kind and could coast, there would be a hand actuated brake such as is shown with the cowboy, who has a "spoon brake" that uses a rod to drive a "spoon" shaped bit of metal against the tire to brake. It would have been a bit much for Mr. Newman to ride a bike with a fixed gear system, and anyway when this movie was made it would have been difficult to find such a thing, other than a track bike. And this is pretty much a detail.

At any rate, Butch and Etta had fun with their bike, which seems to have been much of what they were used for in the 1890s . . . fun.

1 comment:

  1. Hello-

    I came across your blog post ("Cowboys On Bikes") while searching for something else. As another reader suggested, I suspect the picture of the US Arly soldier with his bike was based on 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps. I wrote about that unit in one of my newspaper columns back in 2012. Here's the link, and I included the full text of the article below if the link doesn't come up.

    Bill Cullins