A Short History of Schwinn: 1895 to 1930 - Doug Barnes

Saturday, August 21, 2021

A Short History of Schwinn: 1895 to 1930

vintage 1890s bicycle
Possible Schwinn First Bicycle, 1895
(Photo: Famous Schwinn-Built Bicycle Brochure, 1895)

Schwinn was founded during the safety bicycle boom of the 1890s.  Around 1910 that boom turned to a bicycle bust and Ignaz Schwinn turned his attention towards motorcycles. He founded Excelsior motorcycles to counter the decline in bicycle sales. It seemed to be a natural evolution to move from human-powered to motor-powered cycles. Despite the high quality of the motorcycles produced by Schwinn, in the late 1920s, the Great Depression put an end to this business.  People quite buying high-priced motorcycles.  Schwinn returned to its roots in the 1930s and once again began to focus on high-quality bicycles. 

At present, the full history of Schwinn Bicycles can be found in a separate much longer article called A Short History of Vintage Schwinn Bicycles. 

Schwinn Catalogs provide an interesting source of Schwinn history and can be found at Vintage Schwinn Bicycle PDF Catalogs.

Company Founded during the 1890s Safety Bicycle Boom

In 1861, Ignaz Schwinn had a decision to make. He was managing a bicycle factory in Germany that he had helped build with Henrick Kleyer. He had landed the job with Kleyer because of some of his tinkerings with new safety bicycle designs. Things did not go smoothly in his new job and he had a dispute with Kleyer supposedly over a coaster brake design. He realized that in his current job he would never have control over the creative process for building a bicycle. This meant he probably could never advance beyond the position of factory manager. He made the bold decision to immigrate to the United States to pursue his creative passion for building innovative, quality bicycles. He packed up all his worldly possessions and along with his wife, sailed for the USA.

Once he arrived in Chicago he worked for a series of bicycle companies. He still felt that he was being held back. In 1894 he had a chance meeting with a fellow German immigrant named Adolph Frederick William Arnold. Arnold had an inkling that bicycles would have a bright future.  Having first made his money in the meatpacking business and later as a successful investor and banker, Arnold could see the promise of collaborating with an innovative bicycle factory manager like Ignaz Schwinn.  The consequence was the Arnold Schwinn and Company was formed in 1895. With a strong investor and an experienced manager, Arnold Schwinn & Company was off and running. 

The publication in 1895 coincides with the same year Schwinn was founded by Adolph Arnold and Ignaz Schwinn. This publication with the name Famous Schwinn Built-Bicycles very likely was marketing the original bicycles sold by the new bicycle company founded by the two founders. The brochure contains four interesting safety bicycles, including two for racing and two for everyday use.  The racing bicycle is stated to be just 19 pounds. Because of the development of the safety bicycle, women had become avid bicyclists in the 1890s. The Schwinn women's everyday model has a rear fender and webbing seemingly designed to prevent skirts from getting caught in the wheel or the chain.  

First Ladies Bicycle Produced by Schwinn, 1895
(Image: Schwinn Bicycle Advertisement, 1895)
The 1890s was the period of time when bicycles began to look like, well, bicycles. This catalog highlights Schwinn's version of safety bicycles that were all the rage in the late 1900s. Safety bicycles were quite popular with women. In many circles, they were even credited for securing women's right to vote. Sure enough, Schwinn has a model called the World Ladies' Standard Model No. 34. The catalog also contains cycles they call doubles, triples, and quadruples.  Yes. Schwinn made a four-seat bicycle in 1899. 


Four seat bicycle 1890s
Schwinn 1899 Four Seat Bicycle
Image: Schwinn 1889 Bicycle Catalog

During the 1890s, the bicycle boom was in full swing. As opposed to the awkward big wheelers, the new safety bikes with chains, adequate brakes, and easy steering were simple to ride. No requiring special skills to operate, the "mechanical horse" was seen as the way of the future. Many of the nation's roads were actually improved during this decade because of the desire to have more friendly places to ride a bicycle.  Manufacturers of bicycles, including the Wright Brothers, flourished in an age when the bicycle was considered a liberating invention that would change the world.  At the turn of the century and the advent of more reliable motorcars, the bloom started to come off the bicycle rose. The wild and wooly days of fast-paced innovations and booming sales were about to come to an end. Schwinn would have to adjust to a changing world or join the ranks of struggling bicycle manufacturers.

A Turn towards Motorcycles from 1900 to 1930

The bicycle industry entered the doldrums at the turn of the 20th Century. Adult ridership of bicycles plummeted as people’s attention turned to motorized transportation. The Wright Brothers started ignoring their bike shop in favor of flying machines. Henry Ford rode a bicycle to a factory where he manufactured his first motorcar that looked like two bicycles joined together. He and others like him working on the first cars would sound the death knell for the 1890s adult bicycle boom.

At the time, A. G. Spalding and Alexander Pope, both major bicycling manufacturers, realized that adults were quickly moving away from riding bicycles. With the slide in adult sales, Spalding and Pope joined hands with some others from the bicycle business to form the American Bicycle Company, a consolidated trust of manufacturers. In the spirit of industrial capitalism at the turn of the century, the goal was to monopolize the market and to put small independent bicycle companies out of business.  The venture almost worked. In 1899, the bicycle trust claimed to control 75 percent of bicycle sales. Over time, the major players in the trust began to bicker and fight with one another. This combined with declining bicycle sales caused the trust to burn through $80 million in startup capital. The well-financed trust was a spectacular failure and by 1903, it went into bankruptcy.

Ignaz Schwinn wisely stayed away from the ill-fated trust because he wasn’t one to surrender his independence. In the context of declining sales, he knew that to stay in business, his company would have to change its focus. He took advantage of the bicycle slump to purchase troubled manufactures. His partner Adolph Arnold could see that bicycles were no longer a growth industry. In 1908, he agreed to sell all his shares in the company to Ignaz Schwinn. On his part, Schwinn never gave up on the bicycle side of his company but he recognized that to survive his company would have to diversify.  

Ignaz Schwinn knew his company had a problem.  In the first decade of the 1900s, the sales of bicycles to adults had eviscerated. The remaining bicycle sales that remained during the slump were to children. Making matters worse, Schwinn had to sell its bikes through department stores such as Sears and Montgomery Ward. These retailers competed based on price and didn’t care much about quality because there was no appetite for parents to purchase long-lasting bicycles. Bikes did not have to last very long because children quickly outgrew them. Also, young kids are rough on bicycles and they were ready for the scrap heap once they were ready to move on to a larger size.  

Ignaz Schwinn saw the writing on the wall.  He would have to diversify to keep his company alive. He made a bet on a new type of cycle—the motorcycle. Most of Schwinn’s creative energy from 1910 through 1930 went into producing a well-respected brand of motorcycle called the Excelsior. In 1917, Schwinn purchased Henderson Motorcycle Company from its owners.  Their motorcycles were popular and in the late 1920s, Schwinn became the third largest motorcycle company in the country.

Vintage bicycle on grey background
Schwinn Excelsior Bicycle 1917
(Image: 1917 Schwinn Catalog)

A nice side benefit of purchasing Henderson was they also produced a line of bicycles that could be integrated into the Schwinn portfolio. In a sense, entering into the motorcycle business saved Schwinn as a bicycle company by getting through a very rough patch of declining sales. The motorcycle division of Schwinn took up all the creative energies of the company, and the bicycle division limped along barely surviving its plight.  But by purchasing new bicycle companies during industry consolidation, intentional or not, Schwinn was positioning itself for the next phase of its bicycle business.

The good times of the roaring twenties led to the Great Recession. The bubble burst and all companies, including the motorcycle industry, came under great financial strain. Ignaz Schwinn was heavily invested in the stock market and the plunge in the value of stocks left him with few financial resources.  Thus, in 1931, he called together a group of his closest associates. He realized the time of Schwinn competing in the motorcycle business had come to an end.  He could not find a buyer for the motorcycle business, so at the meeting of his senior staff, he said, “Gentlemen, today we stop.” Schwinn abandoned the motorcycle industry and in an unlikely gamble turned its focus to bicycles. 

At the age of over 70 years old, Ignaz Schwinn decided it was time to wind down his active management of the company. He turned over business operations to his son Frank. With the motorcycles in the rearview mirror, Frank Schwinn took on the difficult task of reinventing what remained of the bicycle business. The company would eventually be renamed the Schwinn Bicycle Company. With his background as an innovative motorcycle engineer, he set his eyes on developing futuristic new bicycle products geared towards children. The stage was set for an era of Schwinn creativity and innovation that would catapult the company into a dominant position in the bicycle industry.

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