The Farthing Lives On

Congested streets, skyrocketing prices of fuel…times are begging for a better means of travel. These could have been the cries of many Americans in places like Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston in 1876.

 

Fortunately for us, there was an Englishman by the name of Thomas Stevens who had had enough. Seeing the problem of crowded streets and of the cost associated with daily travel, he anxiously attacked the problem. The result was the birth of the farthing bicycle.

“This is when many transportation means were changing,” explains Bob Gerling, modern day farthing bicycle enthusiast. “People's perception of time changed when it became socially acceptable and fashionable to jump on your bike and go. You didn't need to feed, water or comb your bike like you would your horse, so people's ideas about travel began to change.”

Almost instantly, freedom to roam the countryside was readily available – all that was required was a jump on your farthing. However, this mount may be easier said than done.

“With a 52-inch front wheel and hard rubber tires with no air to reduce the threat of puncture, a rider steps onto a back wheel step, pushes the bike and steps onto a moving bicycle,” Gerling says. “Definitely takes some practice to get the motion down smooth.”

Learning to get on the bike is not the only adjustment; most of the rules of riding are also different. “You have to teach yourself to put most of your weight towards your back; you don't want to lean while making a turn on this bike, or you'll be over on your side.”

The technique is also somewhat different when trying to reduce your speed. “The brakes are known as spoon brakes, and their purpose is only to slow you down. You don't want to stop, or again, you're going to be on your side,” Gerling warns. And try to avoid running into anything, unless you want to take a “header”: “That is an old-timer’s term for falling head-first over the bicycle. I have done this and it's not any fun.”

The life span of the farthing was only about ten years. As bicycle technology advanced, chain drives were developed and upgraded so that each link had a small roller, making high speeds without the large wheel possible. John Kemp Starley, nephew of the Penny Farthing's inventor, used this new technology to create the Rover Safety Bicycle. This model boasted a front and back wheel of the same size and a lower seat, which made it much safer to ride. Hence, the days of the header were over.

Despite the progress in bicycle design, the art of farthing is not dead. Gerling is a member of the local chapter of The Wheelman Club, an organization that is dedicated to keeping alive the heritage of American cycling. Each year members of the club from chapters all across America congregate for a special event. “Each year, The Wheelman Club will meet in upper Michigan, on Mackinaw Island. There are no cars allowed-only horses, bikes and foot travel,” he says. “There is a ten-mile road around the island, and our club and other farthing club members will make ten laps around the island, on our farthings, in a day, thus completing what we call the ‘Century Run.’”

Gerling's father was one of the founders of The Wheelman Club, which now extends all over the globe. Go to www.wheelman.org to learn more about the history of bicycling and how to join a local Wheelman Club chapter.

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