Cycling culture continues to make inroads, both globally and in our little corner of the Midwest. Massive bicycling infrastructure plans have been implemented in cities such as London and Paris. And even the City of Chicago is trying to do its part if too slowly and ineffectually, to make much difference in the near term to your average Logan Square bike commuter trying to avoid death by collision on a daily basis. While we have a ways to go in making the streets of Logan and other Chicago neighborhoods truly safe and accessible to cyclists, it’s worth noting that Logan has been a crucible of cycling culture for more than a century and is generally friendly to bikers.
Our surfeit of Divvy stations and large population of habitual cyclists are predated by the arrival of one Ignaz Schwinn. The last name, at least, should be familiar to cycling aficionados. The Schwinn Bicycle Company was once one of the leading manufacturers of bicycles in the United States—having cornered a quarter of the market by the 50s—and vintage Schwinn bicycles are still highly regarded.
The Rise of Cycling
The German-born Schwinn (1860-1948) was an early investor in the cycling boom that began in the mid-19th century. Though cycling was in its early years mostly an upper-class leisure activity, by the 1860s, it had democratized somewhat as manufacturing processes became more efficient and costs dropped. Schwinn helped to introduce the British-invented ‘safety’ bike, which soon replaced the ponderous high wheelers of the day, to the Heinrich Kleyer factory in Germany.
In 1891, Schwinn immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Chicago. Here, he worked for several bicycle manufacturers before partnering with meatpacking magnate Adolf Arnold in 1894 to found Arnold, Schwinn & Company. Arnold was also a banker and president of the Haymarket Produce Bank. In light of the booming business for bicycles, this was a sound investment on his part. Arnold, Schwinn & Company was officially incorporated on Oct. 22, 1895, 123 years ago this month. At the turn of the century, some 300 companies were producing bicycles in the U.S. About 30 of them were based in Chicago, which was producing approximately 50 percent of the countries two-wheelers by 1900. Lake Street and Wabash Avenues were hubs of this developing industry.
Initially headquartered at Lake and Peoria streets in the Fulton Market District, in 1901, Schwinn moved his enterprise to Hermosa, at 1856 N. Kostner, after having purchased the failing March-Davis Bicycle Company. Six years later, Schwinn moved his wife and two sons into a newly constructed mansion at Sacramento and Palmer, with a view of Palmer Square Park, which honors John McAuley Palmer, the 15th governor of Illinois. The Cribs-worthy abode featured a garage with a turntable that allowed him to reposition his car so that he did not have to back it onto the street.
Intriguingly, at the same time, he also constructed the Shakespeare Apartments, on the other side of the park, to house his employees. Among the men (and some women) in his employ was Adam Bach, great-great-grandfather of the owner of Logan eatery The Radler, so-named for a German slang word for cyclist. (The beer and soda concoction known as a radler was first made to refresh cyclists.)
According to Chicago History Museum curator Peter Alter, building housing for your employees was not totally unusual at the time.
“Pullman on the South Side would be the shining example of a company building housing for its workers. Of course, the way that Pullman controlled the Pullman town was much different than [just] building an apartment building for your workers,” Alter explains, referring to what is now the Pullman Historic District on the Far South Side. Pullman was the first town planned just for the workers of one employer, George Pullman, who invented the Pullman sleeping car.
“George Pullman didn’t live in Pullman per se but a lot of the middle to upper management did live in the area,” Alter says. “Creating the Shakespeare Apartments was not atypical. But in the late 19th century, living among your workers would be somewhat unusual. It might speak to a time in the early 19th century when there wasn’t nearly as much social distinction between the owners or bosses and the workers. That could also be connected to the fact that he was a German immigrant. That also may have been in the case in industrialized Germany in medium-sized towns and cities.”
Indeed, in the Gilded Age, our neighborhood was populated largely by European immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia.
The area now known as Logan Square was annexed by Chicago in 1889. In the preceding decades, architects including Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted had begun work on the design of Chicago’s Emerald Necklace, the 28 miles of boulevards encircling the city. In 1871, William Le Baron Jenney, designer of the first skyscraper, had begun laying out the boulevard system now comprising Logan, Humboldt, and Garfield parks. Among his contributions was Palmer Square Park; many of his designs were later refined by famed landscape architect Jens Jensen. Though mansions sprung up along this Parisian-inspired system, wealthy and working class rubbed shoulders more than they might have in other neighborhoods.
“Those really nice homes in Wicker Park and Logan Square were sometimes called the ethnic Gold Coast,” Alter says. “That term was developed to describe that area… in the 1890s. Unlike the Prairie Avenue Historic District or the [actual] Gold Coast, there was a greater deal of social integration.”
The wealthy of the area were largely northern and western European immigrants and their first-generation children, whereas areas like the Gold Coast were populated by people several generations removed from their immigrant roots. The shared heritage of Gilded Age Loganites may have made them more comfortable living alongside less-prosperous neighbors from the same areas of Europe.
Schwinn’s working class employees, while luckier than some, did not necessarily have an easy life.
“When he was establishing his factory… there had already been a push for an 8-hour workday in Chicago, but that was by no means universal,” notes Alter. “On a scale including famous Chicago jobs like meatpacking and steelmaking, it wouldn’t have been as dangerous, as smelly as those jobs, but there still would have been a fair amount of danger to the workers. There still would have been fairly long workdays, 10-12 hours; six-day workweeks were not unusual. There would always be the constant danger of losing hands, fingers, feet—that [was] almost universal for factory work of that era.”
Wheels of Fortune
While the working class was still struggling with a wide variety of issues, there were encouraging signs of progress during this period. The rise of cycling culture was one of them. With the increasing accessibility of bikes to lower-income workers, a new leisure activity emerged, one that could be pursued by upper and lower classes alike. While purchasing a bicycle was still something of an indulgence for some, many saved up and made the leap to life on two wheels.
The cyclists speeding around the city became known as “scorchers,” a jeering term referencing their disregard for pedestrians—one that seems equally applicable today.
“There was a confluence of different things,” Alter notes in accounting for the phenomenon.
“There was the growth of the boulevard system in different American urban centers,” he says. “Generations of children are growing up and they only know urban spaces so [there was a need] to create outdoor green space in the concrete jungle. Bicycling came along with that re-emphasis on being outside.“
Logan’s own boulevards were often the scene of bicycling events. An 1896 article in the Chicago Tribune remarked upon the colorful parade of cyclists who held their annual rally in Palmer Square Park.
Alter relatesf the story of Elmer Whiting, a Garfield Park street car conductor, who in 1894 purchased a bicycle for his wife and soon thereafter, one for himself. His family would tour the city on their two-wheelers, taking in sights ranging from the splendor of the lakefront to the grim but astonishing agro-industrial complexes of Back of the Yards.
In addition to bringing men from all walks of life together, cycling “…was one of the early opportunities for men and women to be doing the same thing… as a sport,” claims Alter. Evanston suffragist and temperance advocate Frances Willard wrote a volume on her adoption of cycling as a hobby in her 50s, “A wheel Within a Wheel: How I learned to ride the bicycle, with some reflections by the way,” published in 1895. Female bikers wearing “bloomers,” the billowing pants popularized by Amelia Bloomer, became a common sight on Chicago’s streets. These garments made pedaling easier than it would have been wearing the voluminous skirts of the day. One of Schwinn’s first models was explicitly branded as being for “ladies.”
A Tour de Force
Schwinn continued to capitalize on the growing interest in cycling. In 1908, he bought out Arnold, who had lost interest in the venture. As early as 1896, the Haymarket Produce Bank is noted as having been in “shaky” condition, so that may have influenced his decision. A dip in demand may have also played a part. Schwinn’s company was among the few that survived that downturn. That year, a new factory was erected at 1718 North Kildare, also in Hermosa. (North-Grand High School now sits on the site.) The company began selling its cycles through the Chicago-based Sears, Roebuck, and Co., further expanding its market reach. Between 1911 and 1914, Schwinn branched into motorcycle manufacture as well, marketing his motorbikes as Excelsior-Hendersons, after the companies that he purchased.
When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Schwinn turned his attentions to making bicycles for the military at the plant on Kildare, an endeavour that continued for nearly two years, until the end of the war. At around this time, Schwinn’s son Frank began taking over many of the management duties, though the aging Ignaz remained on the board and was still a key player in the company’s decision-making. The company divested itself of its motorcycle holdings in 1931, on the heels of the 1929 stock market crash, and again devoted itself exclusively to the manufacture of bicycles. During the first three decades of the century, despite wildly fluctuating markets and international instability both economically and politically, Schwinn maintained a hold on the industry, manufacturing 45,000 of the roughly 330,000 bicycles manufactured in the U.S. each year.
Through shrewd business management and unwavering attention to quality and detail, the company even survived the Great Depression, notably introducing the balloon tire in 1933, a feature that soon became standard. The 30s were characterized by the rollout of sleek, lighter models whose design mimicked that of motorcycles. That period saw major societal changes worldwide and Logan Square was no exception.
“By the time the stock market crashes and the Depression hits in the 30s, a lot of properties are subdivided or become vacant,“ Alter says of the changing demographics of the neighborhood, which included an influx of Jewish immigrants.
The Schwinns rode out these changes with equanimity. In 1940, the company introduced the front brake, a notable safety improvement. It again turned its attention to the war effort with the entry of the U.S. into World War II, a period during which, like many industries, it hired more female workers due to the number of young men who were shipped overseas. At that point, some 1,000 Chicago youths and men had been employed by Schwinn.
Cycle of Life
Ignaz Schwinn died in 1948; in an ironic twist, he is buried at Rosehill Cemetery, which prohibits bicycling. His partner, Arnold, who died in 1912, is buried at Graceland, which opened its grounds to cycling in 2017. By 1955, the Schwinn family had vacated Logan Square, donating its mansion to St. Sylvester Church, which demolished the building. An auditorium, called Schwinn Hall, stands in its place.
The company nonetheless maintained its presence in Hermosa. Though mismanagement by Schwinn descendants led to a 1980 strike in which 1,400 workers walked out, the first in the company’s history, the company persisted, using computerized design methods and acquiring interests in exercise machine manufacture. In 1982, the company moved its operations to Greenville, Mississippi. A decade later, it declared bankruptcy, and in 1993 began selling off assets. In 2001, the brand was purchased by Pacific Cycle, now owned by a Canadian firm. The bikes are now manufactured in Asia and Eastern Europe and are sold at big box retailers like Wal-Mart.
The story of Schwinn and his residence in Logan Square serves as a parable for the historical factors that shape the area we now inhabit. “You have all of these forces coming together to change Logan Square from the neighborhood Schwinn moved into in the 1890s to when his descendant moves out in the 1950s,” Alter says.
One hopes that Schwinn might be pleased to see the increasing installation of bike lanes and amused by the “scorchers” tooling around his old stomping grounds today.