1929 Elgin Cardinal ‘Motobike’
Sold Exclusively by Sears & Roebuck
Totally Original Top-of-the-Line
with 28″ Wooden Wheels and Single Tube Tyres
The Elgin brand was one of America’s most prestigious, and Elgin bicycles were sold exclusively through Sears & Roebuck catalogues and stores. This 1929 Elgin Cardinal is a classic of its era. By 1932, Schwinn had introduced the first of the new 26″ metal-wheel ‘balloon tyre’ bikes, turning these old 28″ wooden wheel ‘motobikes’ into instant dinosaurs.
As the thirties progressed, the new balloon tyre bikes developed ever-more fantastic art deco styling, with the result that, until recently, the American classics of the twenties were totally ignored. For a long time, restorers ran the bicycle hobby. By now, most thirties American bicycles have been restored. Unfortunately, mimicking the craze for face-lifts and botox among movie stars, many American bicycles were totally over-restored. In recent years, however, America has woken up to its cycling heritage. With unrestored bicycles becoming much rarer, totally original ‘motobikes’ such as this are now the models most prized by collectors.
This wonderful machine, with its motorcycle style tank (which is actually a toolbox with a flap opening on one side), positively drips with patina. It sports expensive accessories, ie an ‘ahooga’ horn and a headlight with ‘Elgin’ engraved into the glass. There are no reproduction parts on it – look at the tank, the handlebar grips, pedals, saddle, rear carrier, etc. Both tyres are old single-tubes, the front one being rare, and marked ‘The Original Chain Tread Tire.’
ELGIN CARDINAL IN THE SEARS & ROEBUCK CATALOGUE
SEARS & ROEBUCK HISTORY
Picture America in the late 1880s. The states were only 38 in number. Their total population was 58 million and about 65 percent of these people lived in rural areas. Only a dozen or so cities had 200,000 or more residents. And the yearly national income was about $10 billion. This was the scene when, one day in 1886, a Chicago jewelry company shipped some gold-filled watches to an unsuspecting jeweler in a Minnesota hamlet. Thus started a chain of events that led to the founding of Sears. Richard Sears was an agent of the Minneapolis and St. Louis railway station in North Redwood, Minnesota. Sears job as station agent left him plenty of spare time, so he sold lumber and coal to local residents on the side to make extra money. Later, when he received a shipment of watches – unwanted by a neighboring Redwood Falls jeweler – he was ready. Sears purchased them himself, sold the watches at a nice profit to other station agents up and down the line, and then ordered more for resale.
In 1886 Sears began the R.W. Sears Watch Company in Minneapolis. The following year, Sears moved his business to Chicago and inserted a classified ad in the Chicago Daily News looking for a watchmaker. An Indiana lad, Alvah C. Roebuck answered the ad. He told Sears he knew watches and brought a sample of his work to prove it. Sears hired him. Here began the association of two young men, both still in their twenties, that was to make their names famous. For it was in 1893 that the corporate name of the firm became Sears, Roebuck and Co.
By the time Sears was started, farmers in rural America were selling their crops for cash and buying what they needed from rural general stores. But when they laid their money on the line for goods, farmers saw red. In 1891 the wholesale price of a barrel of flour was reported to be $3.47. Price at retail was at least $7, a 100 percent increase. Farmers formed protest movements, such as the Grange, to do battle against high prices and the “middleman.”
Sears, Roebuck and Co. and other mail-order companies were the answer to farmers’ prayers. Thanks to volume buying, to the railroads and post office, and later to rural free delivery and parcel post, they offered a happy alternative to the high-priced rural stores. Years later the company adopted the motto “Shop at Sears and Save.” Because farmers could do so in the 1890s, Sears prospered.
In 1906 Sears wrote: ‘We do comparatively very little business in cities, and we assume the cities are not at all our field – maybe they are not – but I think it is our duty to prove they are not.’
Nineteen years later, the time came for Sears, Roebuck and Co. to prove that cities were its field. The man who proved it was Robert E. Wood, then a Sears vice president later to become president and board chairman. At Sears, he garnered fame as the father of Sears retail expansion.
There were several reasons why Wood crusaded for Sears to open retail stores. For one thing, chain stores were beginning to blanket the country and cut into Sears mail-order business. In 1914 there were about 24,000 chain stores. Fifteen years later there were more than 150,000.
The whole face of the country was changing. With cars and modern roads, Sears rural customers were no longer limited to shopping by catalog. Just as important, American cities were growing up, and Sears rural customers were abandoning the farm for the factory. In 1900 rural population still outnumbered the urban population. By 1920 the situation was reversed.
City dwellers, Wood reasoned, weren’t good catalog customers. They shopped in city stores. Unless Sears opened stores of its own, it would end up serving only a small fraction of the total American buying public. As soon as he was on the job, Wood moved.
Early in 1925, he experimented with one store located in the Chicago mail-order plant. It was an immediate success. Before the year was out he opened seven more retail stores, four of them in mail-order plants. By the end of 1927 he had 27 stores in operation.
The retail operation grew to 192 stores in 1928, to 319 stores in 1929 and to 400 stores in 1933. During one 12-month period in the late 20’s, stores opened on the average of one every other business day. When two huge stores opened in one city on the same day, more than 120,000 people visited them during the first 12 hours they were open. As one authority put it, ‘Leases can’t be signed fast enough, stores can’t be readied fast enough, personnel can’t be hired fast enough.’
The principle of Sears buying began to change in the late 1920s. Some mail-order merchandise already was being sold under Sears own trade names. And with the opening of more and more retail stores, volume in these and other lines grew rapidly. With this growth, Sears buyers were able to develop exclusively different items to be sold under Sears brand names. This was the beginning of such names as Craftsman, Kenmore and DieHard.
In 1931 Sears retail sales topped mail-order sales for the first time. Stores accounted for 53.4 percent of total sales of more than $180 million. Despite the Depression, Sears continued to open stores during the 1930s. When war broke out in 1941, more than 600 stores were operating. World War II called a halt to Sears retail expansion and even forced several stores to close. After the war, however, Wood resumed his expansion program.