Pedaling Back in Time with Davis Sewing Machine Company | Smithsonian Voices


Recently, I came across a commercial catalog that got me thinking. Looking at its vibrantly illustrated cover, I thought of relaxing summer days at the beach. We see a cyclist riding along the shore, a dog following him closely and boats in the distance. I also noticed another thing. The company name refers to sewing machines while the cover illustrates a bicycle. This observation aroused my curiosity to explore the pages of this catalog.

The catalog is titled Dayton Bikes (1896) by Davis Sewing Machine Co. With a name referring to sewing machines, it may come as a surprise that the company also makes bicycles. According to this catalog, the Davis Sewing Machine Co. introduced the Dayton Bicycle to the public at the start of the 1895 season, a year before this catalog.

19th century illustration of a woman on a bicycle next to the beach.

Davis Sewing Machine Co., Dayton, OH. Dayton Bicycles (1896), cover.

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He mentions that the Dayton Bicycle was not “the product of a new and unheard of establishment”. Instead, the production of this bike resulted from a “thorough and thorough study” of the methods and requirements needed to make bikes.

He also points out that Davis Sewing Machine Co. had already been manufacturing machines for over 25 years. From the name of the company, the machine referred to is presumably the sewing machine. The Commercial Literature Collection to National Museum of American History Library also includes some of their sewing machine catalogs.

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Davis Sewing Machine Co., Dayton, OH. Dayton Bicycles (1896), title page.

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This particular catalog includes several pages providing technical information and details regarding the construction and manufacture of the Dayton 1896 bicycle. Apart from the images of these models, it also elaborates on specific parts of the bicycle.

The Dayton bike itself has been described as having “graceful lines and beautiful design” and “combining extreme strength with perfect symmetry”. Scattered throughout the pages of this catalog are a variety of illustrations showing the bike in action with people riding in places such as the beach, park or town.

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Davis Sewing Machine Co., Dayton, OH. Dayton Bicycles (1896), “The Dayton on Fifth Avenue, New York.”

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A feature of the Dayton bike were its wooden rims, which this catalog says were constructed to prevent warping, splitting, or separation at the joint. Reinforced with three layers of wood, it used both a dovetail joint and a lap joint. More details and an illustration are shown below. The rims were finished in natural or stained wood.

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Davis Sewing Machine Co., Dayton, OH. Dayton Bicycles (1896), wooden bicycle front fork, wheels and rims.

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Riders had a variety of handlebars to choose from, such as the raised single handlebar and several designed for racing. The adjustable handlebar is shown below left (image on top and number 7 on bottom). This feature allowed the rider to adjust the handlebars to a variety of positions, including a lowered or raised position. Adjustable handlebars were available in 15, 16, 17 or 18 inch widths.

As for the pedals, the 1896 Dayton bicycle was equipped with either the Grothe pedal or the Brandenburg pedal. The different styles of these pedals are shown below (right), including one for racing.

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Davis Sewing Machine Co., Dayton, OH. Dayton Bicycles (1896), Adjustable Handlebars and Handlebar Styles (left page) and Pedals (right page).

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Further on, the catalog provides illustrations of several 1896 models. One of them is the Model C-Ladies’ Bicycle. Weighing 23 to 25 pounds, it was built with a frame measuring 20, 22, or 24 inches.

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Davis Sewing Machine Co., Dayton, OH. Dayton Bicycles (1896), Model C ladies’ bicycle.

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The H-Track Racer model, pictured below, has been described as “the stiffest racing wheel in the world, absolutely no compromise under the hardest sprint”. Weighing in at 20 to 21 pounds with a 25-inch frame, it was designed for use only on trails and not for riding on the road.

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Davis Sewing Machine Co., Dayton, OH. Dayton bicycles (1896), H-Track Racer model.

Smithsonian Libraries and Archives

Other models include Roadster and Tandem bikes. The M-Single-Steering Tandem model, designed to accommodate two passengers, is shown below (right). Weighing 40 pounds, its frame was available as a 23- or 25-inch bike. The Dayton Racing Tandem is pictured below (left) and described as having graceful lines and a stiff frame. He is shown riding in what appears to be a race.

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Davis Sewing Machine Co., Dayton, OH. Dayton Bicycles (1896), “The Dayton Racing Tandem at the National Capital” (left page) and Model M-Single-Steering Tandem (right page).

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Just as the catalog begins, the back cover shows another vibrant illustration. This one is called “An Elopement” and depicts a couple taking off on a Tandem, presumably a Dayton Tandem. In the distance, a horse and a carriage rush towards them.

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Davis Sewing Machine Co., Dayton, OH. Dayton Bicycles (1896), back cover.

Smithsonian Libraries and Archives

Dayton Bikes (1896) and other trade catalogs by Davis Sewing Machine Co.including catalogs of sewing machines, can be found in the Commercial Literature Collection to National Museum of American History Library.

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