Object of the Month

Will Bradley and the Art of the Bicycle

Victor Bicycles, MDCCCXCIX Catalog of the Overman Wheel Co.,

Victor Bicycles, MDCCCXCIX

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  • This 1899 catalog of the Overman Wheel Company of Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, was designed by Massachusetts native and graphic designer Will Bradley (1868-1962). The Overman Wheel Company gained international stature during the 1890s as the manufacturer of the Victor/Victoria bicycles, reputed to be the finest of the new model "safety" bicycles built in the United States. With offices in Boston, New York, Detroit, Denver, San Francisco, Los Angles, Portland, Oregon, and in Europe, Overman challenged Albert A. Pope's Columbia Bicycle Company of Hartford, Connecticut, for leadership in the booming bicycle business of the late nineteenth century. This 1899 catalog, the last Will H. Bradley would do for Overman and the most beautiful and elaborately designed of any in the bicycle industry, also reflected his role in creating the American Art Nouveau movement.

    Get a bicycle. You will not regret it. If you live -- Mark Twain

    Neither the current Lance Armstrong-driven revival of cycling in the United States nor the demand for competitive-grade bicycles priced at $5,000 to $10,000 can match the craze for bicycling during the golden age of the American bicycle in the 1880s and 1890s. Although some version of the bicycle -- velocipedes -- had existed since the early nineteenth century, pedal powered cycles only became popular after the American Civil War. Both Columbia and Overman manufactured the high wheeled or "ordinary" bicycle in the early 1880s (a vast improvement over the low-riding "boneshakers" of 1869), feeding a national passion that knew few bounds -- and even fewer well-paved roads. Heroic, steel-legged cyclists rode ungainly "ordinaries" across the country and around the world in epic adventures that captivated public attention everywhere. It was the introduction of the so-called "safety bicycle" in the 1890s that truly revolutionized the industry, however. Easily recognizable as modern bikes, safety bicycles, as their name suggests, were safer and easier to ride than the high-wheelers and opened cycling to all who could afford the initially high price.

    By 1890, about 150,000 Americans -- men, women, and children -- owned bicycles, with one enthusiast calling it the "most strengthening and healthful sport ever invented." That same year saw an explosion in bike sales, doubling the number of bicycle owners in just one year. Throughout the Gay Nineties, the popularity of bicycling grew exponentially, but cycling was soon to become a victim of its own popularity. By 1897, prices began to fall, and cheap knockoffs flooded the market, damaging the reputation of companies such as the Overman Wheel Company, which would be forced into bankruptcy before going out of business after 1899. By 1902, the boom years of American cycling were over, and sales that had once peaked at 1,200,000 bikes per year were reduced to one quarter of that number.

    Who was Will H. Bradley?

    Lauded as the "Dean of American typographers," William Henry Bradley was born in Boston on 10 July 1868, the son of Aaron and Sarah Bradley. Before his death in 1879, Aaron Bradley encouraged young Will's artistic talent, bringing home pieces of type that Bradley set using a small hand press he bought with proceeds from a job delivering shoe uppers in Lynn, Massachusetts. Bradley dropped out of school after the eighth grade, and by the age of 14 began working as a printer in Ishpeming, Michigan, where he and his mother had moved after the death of Aaron Bradley. After a few false starts and missteps, Bradley became one of America's foremost type designers, illustrators, and artists, designing magazine covers, posters, and typefaces. Although Bradley's work encompasses many styles, his most recognizable work, like the Overman Wheel Catalog, is in the highly decorative Art Nouveau style, showing influences of Aubrey Beardsley and William Morris. Bradley also worked in the Colonial Revival style, singlehandedly restoring the popularity of Caslon type, an old and very simple typeface used in early American imprints that Bradley studied at the Boston Public Library. Always on the move, Bradley established presses in Springfield and Concord, Mass., as well as New York and Chicago. In 1907, he became the first art editor for Collier's Magazine and would later become art director for all Hearst publications and motion pictures. In 1928, Bradley retired to California to begin working on his autobiography. He continued to be an influential presence in the world of typography until his death in 1962.

    Suggestions for Further Reading

    Bambace, Anthony. Comp. Will H. Bradley: His Work, A Bibliographical Guide. New Castle Delaware: Oak Knoll Press & Boston, Thomas G. Boss Fine Books, 1995.

    Hornung, Clarence P. Ed. Will Bradley, His Graphic Art: A Collection of his Posters, Illustrations, Typographic Designs & Decorations. New York: Dover Publications, 1974.

    Koch, Robert. Will H. Bradley, American Artist in Print: A Collector's Guide. New York and Manchester, Vt.: Hudson Hills Press, 2002.

    The Massachusetts Historical Society holds a sizable collection of Bradley's work, including complete sets of Bradley, His Book and The American Chapbook. His advertising work and posters are also well represented. The Chicago Historical Society, Columbia University, Henry E. Huntington Library, Library of Congress, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian Institution also hold Bradley's work. 19th Century Bicycle News provides access to digitized copies of articles on bicycles and bicycling from 23 popular nineteenth century periodicals.

    The Smithsonian Institution features an overview of its bicycle collection and bicycling history on its America on the Move website.

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