A high-wheeled bicycle


Reporter in Residence
Monroe Mouse

Hi, Fanlight readers! I must tell you about the surprise I encountered during one of my recent third-floor night scampers — a VERY strange looking two-wheel bicycle with a huge (57 inch diameter) front wheel and, in comparison, a very small (17½-inch) back wheel. I haven’t, in my whole little mouse life, seen anything like it! Of course I had to find out more about this fascinating historical object. Luckily, the accession tag told me what it’s called and where it came from:

Penny Farthing bicycle, c. 1880s
(rebuilt, c. 1965)
Donor: Jere Hoover

With this important information, I immediately set forth on my research. As always, using only reliable websites, I found out that the name “penny farthing” comes from the size of two English coins that were circulated long ago: The English penny, made of copper, had a diameter of over an inch and was worth one cent in English money. The farthing, whose name came from Old English word feorthing, from feortha (a fourth), was worth 1⁄4 of a cent and was much smaller. Aha, I get it — the front and back wheels on the bicycle match up with the names of the coins!

I was not too familiar with bicycles and their history. “The Chronology of the Growth of Bicycling and the Development of Bicycle Technology” provided a lot of information on these interesting vehicles and their evolution.

In the early 1700s, a German man, Karl Drais, invented a velocipede (my new favorite word), or dandy horse, which was propelled by the rider sitting on the seat of a straight line two-wheeled wooden structure and pushing it forward by his/her feet. With no brakes and being hard to steer, the rider was challenged to keep control of this “boneshaker,” due to the lack of springs and the number of riders who “wiped-out.”

Through the 1800s, boneshakers were slowly but continually made safer and better, with the addition of pedals and growth of the front wheel to make steering easier.

In 1871, the penny farthing high-wheel bicycle was invented by Englishman James Starley. It was the first all-metal velocipede, sporting solid rubber tires and long spokes in the large front wheel which provided smoother travel. Riders soon realized that the larger the wheel, the farther you could travel with one rotation of the pedals. Because the rider sat so high above the center of gravity, when the front wheel was stopped by a stone or rut in the road, the entire apparatus rotated forward on its front axle, and riders, with legs trapped under the handlebars, were dropped unceremoniously on their heads, thereby “taking a header.”

But still there were no brakes. I spent a lot of time wondering how many people rode such a dangerous bike in Monroe County back in the olden days. Even though I’m too small to ride a bike, I’m glad they have brakes and are safer today.

So how did Mr. Hoover end up with this wonderful, historical object? Here’s what I know: As a young lad growing up in Stroudsburg, he lived through the flood of 1955 and witnessed the remnants of a penny farthing bicycle in a pile of debris being pushed by a bulldozer in the lower Main Street area where many houses had been ruined by the high water, including his.

It’s gotten around that Mr. Hoover tells many stories that are interesting remembrances, revealing a close-knit local community of neighbors, shopkeepers, and friends who helped each other, especially when a boy wanted to fix up a strange- looking mangled bicycle. We in the Stroud Mansion call such stories “living history.”

I’ve heard that his remade penny farthing was ridden during the celebration of Stroudsburg’s Sesquicentennial in 1965. I wonder what actually happened, don’t you? As the Living History resources are under construction, I will check other resources in the Mansion’s library and collections for more local information. (I think I may have left some cheese over there for a snack).

I can’t wait to find out more about that strange bike, its rebuilding, and the people who were involved in such a difficult task.

Thanks, Mr. Hoover, for donating your penny farthing!