View the first and oldest bicycle ever ridden in Jefferson City at the Cole County Historical Museum.
If you are looking for the charm of a century gone by, the Cole County Historical Society Museum offers an interesting glimpse into the late Victorian Era. You can look back to the 1880s and view the first and oldest bicycle ridden in Jefferson City. This bicycle was owned and ridden by Mr. Otis Manchester Sr. in 1881 and was made in 1870 by the Coventry Sewing Machine Company, the central figure of the British bicycle industry.
Although the bicycle was called an “ordinary or high wheeler,” it is far from being ordinary and has a unique appearance. An ordinary, more widely known as a penny-farthing, is a type of bicycle with an extremely large front wheel and a much smaller rear wheel. The name came from the British penny and farthing coins in circulation at the time, of which the former was much larger than the latter.
The first penny-farthing was invented by British engineer James Starley. The penny-farthing came after the development of the hobbyhorse and the French velocipede or boneshaker, all versions of early bikes. However, the penny-farthing was the first really efficient bicycle, with a simple tubular frame, tires of solid rubber, and plain bearings for pedals, steering, and wheels. The penny-farthing used a larger wheel than the velocipede, thus giving the rider higher speeds and a smoother ride.
Mounting the bicycle required skill. The rider first grasped the handlebar and placed one foot on a peg above the back wheel. Then the rider scooted the bicycle forward to gain momentum and quickly jumped up onto the seat while continuing to steer the bicycle and maintain balance. To stop, the rider pressed back on the pedals while applying a spoon-shaped brake pressing the tire.
A distinct attribute of the penny-farthing is that the rider sat nearly over the front axle. When the wheel struck rocks and ruts, or came under hard braking, the rider could be pitched forward off the bicycle head-first. “Headers” were relatively common and posed a significant and sometimes fatal hazard. Riders coasting down hills often took their feet off the pedals and put them over the tops of the handlebars, so they would be pitched off feet-first instead of head-first.
Penny-farthing bicycles were very fashionable in the United Kingdom and the United States from the mid-1870s through the early 1890s. Even though these bicycles were hard to mount, tricky to ride, and resulted in many injuries, they became very popular in urban areas, where they were driven mostly by well-to-do men who had enough money for such an extravagant form of transportation. Because of the high-class appeal of the penny-farthing, this bicycle was responsible for the earliest examples of cycling as a recreational pastime.
Although the trend was short-lived, the penny-farthing became a symbol of the late Victorian era. The penny-farthing was the first machine to be called a “bicycle” and was the forerunner of the modern bicycle. Today, hobbyists still ride restored penny-farthings, and a few manufacturers build new ones.
The penny-farthing is only one of the many artifacts, records, and documents on display for public viewing at the Cole County Historical Society and Museum, located at 109 Madison St. in Jefferson City.
Walk-in tours for groups of 10 or fewer are available Tuesday through Saturday from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. or Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. for larger groups.