That big front wheel bike: See why the penny farthing high wheel bike was an icon of the Victorian age (1890)

The ups & downs of high wheel bicycles (penny-farthing bikes) from the 1890s

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In the lingo of the 1890s, an “ordinary” bike was also known as a high wheel or penny farthing bicycle — the kind with a huge front wheel.

The other bikes — with two equal-size wheels, like we use today — were somewhat dismissively called “safety” bicycles, and for awhile were considered the significantly inferior type.

Alas, despite the preference of many people during the Victorian era, the later world decided to go in the safer direction, leaving high-wheel bicycles to their new destiny: as an icon of bygone times.

Below, we have dueling essays where proponents of the thrilling big front wheel bike and of boring old safety bikes go head to head. Also see a retrospective piece from 1963 celebrating the [very brief] resurgence of the high wheel bike in popularity (and why was it called a penny farthing bicycle anyway??).

(BTW: you can still get them today!)

The high wheel bike again in favor: Cyclists are now returning to their first love

Article from the Chicago Tribune (Illinois) March 23, 1890

Apropos of the popular idea that the safety bicycle is taking the place of the “ordinary,” or high wheel bike, it is true the ordinary had an off year in 1889, and it was caused by the rush for the safety wheel, which opened early in the season. It will not, however, be so this coming season. It’s 

The fever for safety wheels was contagious, and nearly every cycler who could do so traded his high wheel bike for a safety bicycle. This year, they are trading back again. They have tried both wheels and prefer the ordinary.

Man on a huge high wheel bikes

The safety will stay with us, but its field will be circumscribed. Its use will be limited to ladies who cannot ride the ordinary, and to timid men who see fancied danger in headers from the high wheels if they ride them.

There is no comparison to be made between the two styles of wheel so far as comfort and convenience is concerned to the rider. It is true that headers cannot be taken on the safety, but at the same time they are by no means a necessity on the high wheel bike.

Reckless, daredevil riders can hurt themselves in many ways on the low wheel that are more than equal to a header. Moreover, cautious riders on the high wheels do not take headers. They know how to avoid them.

The Springfield Roadster vintage Victorian bicycle

Munger, Rae, Tuttle, Lumsden, Van Sicklen, or any of the cyclists in Chicago of the expert type would laugh at anybody who mentioned the idea of their taking headers. Any rider can slide back on his saddle and go over two bricks piled one on the other.

The place to get accurate and reliable information on this subject is not from the State Street or Wabash Avenue dealer, but from the boys who may be found about the cycling clubs.

Said one: “I traded my Victor safety for an ordinary, and I am well pleased. I was riding my safety on Fifty-Fifth Street Boulevard last summer and was running rapidly, when all of a sudden my wheel flew from under me, and I got up off the hard road with a square foot of skin sandpapered off my hip.

A high wheel bicycle - penny-farthing bike

“In the country, the high wheel is by long odds the better. One of the principal objections to the safety for country road riding is the annoyance from dogs.

“You may not think so, but it is a fact that dogs will tear your clothes off almost, and I have myself been compelled to dismount and fight them off. On my ordinary, I ignore them.

Antique bicycle suits for men from 1898
Antique bicycle suits for men from 1898

“Then the matter of dust is important. The safety-wheel is so low that the dust produced by running in the country roads is scooped up by the pedals, which reach to within six inches of the ground. On the ordinary, trouble from dust is not noticeable.

“Speaking of accidents, I only saw one mishap on a high wheel all summer, and that was the fault of a man on a safety. I saw a number on the small wheels. George Fowler is one of the best riders in Chicago. He got the safety craze, got a low wheel, fell with it, and had his leg in a plaster cast all the rest of the season.”

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Person with a Victorian bicycle from the 1890s

There is too much machinery about the safety. The sprocket wheel, the chain, the guard and axle cogs are not on the ordinary. It has no machinery. The pedal-cranks are attached to the large wheel axle, and there’s nothing about it to get out of order. The safety requires shopping several times a season.

Another very important feature is that the ordinary is easier to control, on account of the cranks being attached to the large wheel. The small wheel has more ball bearings than the high one. The latter requires no mud guards over the wheels, which get loose and rattle.

It is a more graceful-looking wheel and is more reliable on long runs. Altogether, it has been decided by the bicycle boys to let the high wheel remain.

People riding old-fashioned high-wheel penny-farthing bicycles

A high wheel bicycle race in 1890

High wheel bicycle race in 1890 - Penny farthing bikes (1)

High wheel bicycle race in 1890 - Penny farthing bikes (2)

Rebuttal to the above opinion: The safety bicycle defended

Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) April 20, 1890

Editor of The Tribune: Such a misleading impression was conveyed to a large number of prospective cyclists by a recent article published in THE TRIBUNE favoring the high wheels that the writer is prompted to attempt a reply to the arguments advanced in favor of them as against the safety.

With due deference for the opinion of “the boys,” they can hardly decide the question of practicability between the two styles of wheels. It is true the high wheel bike is more simple in construction and graceful in appearance, requiring more skill to ride without danger from bad falls, but as for speed the safety is only two seconds behind, and much easier to mount and dismount.

Man running to get on a vintage high wheel bicycle
A big front wheel bike is not easy to mount!

The champion of the high wheel is evidently somewhat prejudiced to mention only one accident last season on the ordinary, but dwells at length on the mishaps from riding the safety, while to mention any particular make of wheel, with so many good ones on the market, seems poor taste, even though he showed good taste in choice.

The safety bicycle has interested another class of riders — business and professional men — who would never attempt to ride the high wheel and are advocates of the safety, for with it all danger from falls is reduced to a minimum.

The great problem of rapid transit is solved for all who appreciate wheeling and enjoy the health-giving sport. Another argument in favor of the safety is that it has provided a healthy and delightful outdoor pleasure for the ladies, and it will be a happy sign when they discover that less seraphic and more muscular tissue affords better health.

Women riding “safety” bicycles

Vintage actresses with bicycles from 1896 (2)

Vintage actresses with bicycles from 1896 (3)

Vintage actresses with bicycles from 1896 (1)
Actresses as bicycle riders, frim 1896: 1. Effie Ellsler; 2. Cissy Fitzgerald; 3. Anna Held; 4. Queenie Vassar; 5. Mrs. James Brown Potter; 6. Miss Georgia Cayvan; 7. Miss Lillian Russell

A lady on the safety bicycle always presents a graceful appearance and is in striking contrast to the devotee of the high wheel, known as the “scorcher,” riding in tights on the public streets, bending over his wheel and straining every muscle to go at a racing pace regardless of everything.

As a recent writer has truly said, a nose-grinding “Johnny” who has gone cross-eyed watching his cyclometer does not represent the true or highest type of cycling, and I am glad to see it censured, for it is such exhibitions of riding that have kept many from enjoying the indescribable charm of wheeling.

Man riding an antique penny farthing bicycle down the stairs
Penny farthing bicycle shenanigans

To be sure, the ordinary will be a favorite with many, and perhaps for poor country roads it will be preferred, but with the safety, the road work commenced in the league will bring us improved highways, which we are sadly in need of throughout the country.

The unknown writer attempts to show that there is less danger on the high wheel, which is as absurd as the argument about annoyance from dogs. With all its faults, which are rapidly being overcome, the safety bicycle has come to stay. – J. F. Ives

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Penny farthing bicycle in workshop, Sherbrooke, Nova Scotia, Canada

Victorian high wheel bike making a comeback (1963)

By John F Sembower in the Tyler Morning Telegraph (Tyler, Texas) August 30, 1963

SAN FRANCISCO — The high-wheelers are back! Prepare for a shock someday soon when you see a cyclist pedaling along who looks like a fugitive from the Smithsonian Institute or the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

The high-wheeler, which every Englishman knows really is the penny farthing bicycle, was as nearly a symbol of the Gay Nineties as can be found, but it is headed pell-mell for stardom in the great bicycle revival of the Soaring Sixties.

Man with a high wheel bike penny-farthing from the 1890s
The big front wheel bike was the Victorians’ preferred racing and stunt cycle

It is riding the crest of a bicycle boom which has hordes of collegians on campuses like that of Leland Stanford University in nearby Palo Alto. California, virtually making the bicycle the students’ counterpart of the cowboy’s horse.

You must have one or you not only are not “in the swim of things,” but it is likely that you also are grounded, since growing congestion is making even the compact automobile impractical on most campuses.

The trend toward rejuvenation of the kind of bike that great-grandad may have ridden, with the gigantic front wheel measuring 30, 50, 60 and sometimes even a whopping 72 inches in diameter, got its start when a British manufacturer turned out a single modern model as an attention-attracter last fall at London’s International Cycle and Motorcycle Show.

A Californian promptly placed an order for 100. It was followed quickly by a similar order from Minneapolis. Now American manufacturers are getting into the act.

Vintage big front wheel bike aka high wheel bike or penny-farthing bicycle from 1976

The “penny farthing bicycle” got its name from the big contrast between the huge front wheel, which imparts tremendous speed, and the tiny rear wheel. It suggested to whimsical Britishers of several generations ago a comparison between the big English penny and the minuscule farthing coin.

With the current bicycle boom sparking the import of 800,000 lightweight European “racing” bicycles last year, not to mention 100,000 “homegrown” models by US makers and countless “kids’ models” that are heavier and even plushier in many respects, the comeback of the high wheel bike probably was a “natural.”

After all, the aristocrats of cycling had to have something different, and these are so old that they are brand new. The big trick is to get up on them, but after that, it is a breeze — the breeziest ride ever in cycling!

There are indications that the high-wheeler was the original bicycle, and that all other models are watered-down versions whose direct ancestor is the “safety” bicycle, or low-wheeler, invented in 1885 by an Englishman named J.K. Starley.

In 1889, a Belfast manufacturer added pneumatic tires, and the modern era of bicycling, which would be beneath contempt to the original high-wheeler riders, was off and running.

However, there is an old church at Stoke Poges in England, which features a high-wheeler in a stained glass window dating from 1642, so that the invention of the bicycle really is lost in antiquity.

Vintage high wheel bicycle penny-farthing bike from 1955

The “modern” originator usually is considered to be a Dumfriesshire Scot named Kirkpatrick Macmillan, who, in 1839, fitted treadle-driven levers to the rear wheel cranks on a hobby horse.

At ultra-fashionable Palm Springs, they are ushering in a big comeback for latter-day three-wheelers, with complicated 15-gear drives known as “derailleurs,” and you can expect to see lots of them soon around shopping centers throughout the country.

Romantically-minded US makers also are giving the “bicycle-built-for-two” a new whirl. Modern, lightweight metals and synthetics permit a built-in capability that bicycle manufacturers of as recently as a generation ago never dreamed of.

The bicycle boom is being hailed as a relief for automobile traffic congestion, but European traffic experts predict that the joy will be shortlived. They always have considered their “clouds” of cyclists on every thoroughfare their biggest traffic headache!

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Comments on this story

One Response

  1. I bought a modern US-made ordinary/high-wheeler’penny-farthing back in the 1970s from a bicycle shop that was returning their two to the distributor as they had not sold any. One was still packed in its original box but the other had been assembled for display. The shop manager said that no one had been able to ride it; everyone who tried had crashed immediately.
    I put my foot on the step, pushed off and rode it around the parking lot. The manager was shouting, “No! No!” the entire time of several minutes’ riding around. I came to a stop and stayed still for a half minute or so, then rode around again. Then I pulled up, put my foot back on the step and slid off.
    I said, “That was easy! Why does anyone have trouble riding it?”
    He was certain that I was an experienced Ordinary rider but in truth I had never so much as touched one before. I bought it for what they had paid for it, knocked it down and put it in the trunk of my ’68 Cadillac.
    I had a lot of fun riding it around the university town. After I graduated, I took it to a friend’s where I could keep it in their garage.

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