Monday, September 25, 2017

Pope, Columbia, and the History of the Bicycling Industry in Massachusetts

While using the book History of Massachusetts Industries: Their Inception, Growth and Success, by Orra Stone, I learned that Massachusetts had one of the largest factories for producing bicycles.  As a matter of fact, Massachusetts was the first place in the US that bicycles were manufactured.

Albert A. Pope, a Lieutenant-Colonel of the Union Army, who had first seen a bicycle at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, had decided to promote the bicycle in this country for health and recreational purposes.  In 1877 Pope organized the Pope Manufacturing Company with headquarters at 87 Summer Street, Boston, which later became the Westfield Manufacturing Company located in Westfield, MA.  To Pope, the quality of his product was paramount.  After the Philadelphia Exposition Pope went to Europe to study how bicycles were made. After acquiring the American rights to the patents, Pope approached the Weed Sewing Machine Company about using the empty wings of its Hartford plant to produce 50 test bicycles.

 Because of Pope’s high standards, by 1930 the Westfield Manufacturing Company (producer of the Columbia bicycle) was the largest industry of its kind in the United States.  In a short period of time the price of the bicycle steadily increased.  In 1878, the Standard Columbia (one of their bicycle models) sold for $80 to $90; by 1893 the best Columbia sold for $150.

The US had better machinery than in Europe so we were able to produce better bicycles. Some bicycles were shipped abroad, more and more every year.  Eventually the Europeans made improvements to their machinery and they could manufacture their own bicycles.

Company’s brief timeline:
  • 1878: Colonel Pope issued a trade catalog 
  • 1882: the Expert Columbia was launched-the first bicycle to be ridden around the world
  • 1883-1885: the Columbia racer, the light roadster, and the two track and three track tricycles first appeared.
  • 1886: the Columbia Safety Bicycle appeared.  A Safety bicycle is lower to the ground than the Penny Farthing also known as a high wheeler (bicycle with a big front wheel and small back wheel).  
  • 1887-1890: Pope introduced several models including the Columbia Tandem, the racing and light roadster tricycles, the rear driving safety bicycle, the Columbia light roadster safety, the tandem safety, and the women’s safety, and cushion tires first made their appearance on Columbia products.
  • 1891: the world’s record of a mile in 2 minutes, 15 seconds was made on a pneumatic racing safety Columbia bicycle.
  • 1897: Columbia built a bevel gear chainless bicycle which uses a beveled drive shaft where a chain would be.  
  • 1899: the American Bicycle Company was incorporated by Pope and took over the Pope Manufacturing Company and 47 other manufacturers of bicycles and bicycle parts.
  • 1901-1905: many wonderful advances were made by Columbia management including: the cushion frame, the Columbia hub coaster brake, the Pope coaster brake, the Pope cushion fork. These all deal with cushioning the bicycle by using shock absorbers. According to the Columbia Manufacturing Company, by 1897, the Pope Manufacturing Co. held over 50 patents. 
  • 1906: the company moved from Hartford, CT to Westfield, MA.
  • 1917: Columbia was chosen as the standard for the U.S. Army by U.S. transportation experts. Thousands of these bicycles were sent to France during the First World War.  The Westfield plant also helped the war effort by manufacturing high-explosive shells for the government. In 1917 and 1918 every American-made gas shell hurled by our army in France, was manufactured in the Westfield plant.”  

There is still a manufacturing company of Columbia bicycles in Westfield, MA but they are also now known for their school furniture.  They still have the original factory as its core, located at One Cycle Street in Westfield, MA.

Naomi Allen
Reference Staff