01 September 2014

You Have Nothing To Lose But Your Black Beauty

Today is Labor Day.

Over the past 130 years or so, bicycles have done much to improve the mobility of--and bring pleasure to--countless working people. 

There are, however, dark chapters in the history of the cycling industry.  Now, no bicycle company has ever exerted the same degree of control over the American economy as, say, General Motors once did, or as petrol and financial services companies now lord over much of the world's economy.  Still, some titans of the two-wheel trade have been, in their own ways, as anti-worker and just plain ruthless as the captains of other industries.

One such example was Ignaz Schwinn.  A mechanical engineer by training, he emigrated from Germany to Chicago in 1890 and, with Adolph Arnold, started the company that would bear both of their names until 1967. 

When America's first bike boom--which roughly spanned the last decade of the 19th Century and the first of the 20th--went bust, Schwinn and Arnold acquired several smaller bicycle manufacturers as well as two early motorcycle makers--  Excelsior and Henderson --to create what would become the third-largest motorcycle manufacturer in the United States, trailing only Indian and Harley-Davidson. 

As is too often the case, the company's prosperity was not passed on to its workers. So, on 9 September--a week and a day after Labor Day--in 1919,  the metal polishers, buffers and platers of Schwinn and Excelsior-Henderson went on strike

What did those workers want?  A 44-hour workweek and wages of 85 cents an hour.

Unions representing other laborers, in sympathy, boycotted not only Schwinn and Excelsior-Henderson, but also other brands (such as Black Beauty and Harvard)  under which those bicycles and motorcycles were sold.  Herren Schwinn and Arnold soon felt the pinch because, even though the first American Bike Boom was a decade past, many workers were still riding bicycles to work and, sometimes, for recreation.

So what did the august leaders of the company do?  They hired lawyers and got injunctions against the unions whose members were cancelling, or not placing, orders.  They also had striking workers arrested on trumped-up charges of being strike-breakers, employed ex-cons to beat them up or to persuade them to become scabs and even had foremen shoot at the strikers.

Every labor journal of the day mentioned the strike and exhorted readers to support the strikers in any way they could, whether by standing with them physically or participating in the boycott.  From the accounts I have read, it seems that Schwinn had singularly bad relations with its workers; more than one journal said it was OK for Schwinn workers to buy other companies' bicycles and motorcycles.

Hmm...Had I known about this, would I have so badly wanted that Continental I bought when I was fourteen years old?

N.B.:  Schwinn workers also struck in the fall of 1980.  Some blame this work stoppage for the closure of the company's Chicago manufacturing facilities--which, truthfully, were no match for its foreign competitors-- a few of whom, by that time,  were making bikes sold under the Schwinn brand.


  1. This is a fascinating snippet of history, It's so easy for stories like this to blow by and get forgotten. But imagine what big news it was at the time. My husband restores old bikes, for once I might be able to tell him something he doesn't already know about those rusting frames he wheels into the garage!

    Bernice Parsons @ Badger Anodising

  2. Bernice--Thank you for visiting. It's always gratiying, for me, to know that my posts have a life after the day I post them!

    To tell you the truth, I accidentally found the story I related in the post. So, almost anyone can be excused for not knowing it. I'm sure it will be fun, though, for you to relate this to your husband.

    Have a great day!