Throughout the 1890s, all sorts of weird and wonderful bicycle frame designs were patented. Not all were put into production, but inventors were keen to register their ideas in case their designs were picked up by one of the large manufacturers. There were various ideas in both America and Great Britain for split seat tubes, also known as truss frames. A bicycle using the patent above is unknown today. But Hill Cycle Co used a similar patented design for their Fowler and America Truss Frame bicycles.
The best known bicycle using a ‘truss’ is Iver Johnson’s top tube truss design, patented in 1901 and described as a Truss Bridge. It was Iver Johnson’s flagship model, was well-promoted – ‘Trust the Truss’ – and still manufactured in the 1920s. World champion Major Taylor rode one for many years, so its distinctive design became familiar around the world too; Labor subsequently made a similar frame in France.
However, the Truss Seat Tube design (below) is not well-known. Hill Mfg Co had the American patent.
The unique styling of this bicycle is even more distinctive than a Truss Bridge Frame and nowadays only a few survive.
The Fowler Truss Tube frame first appeared in 1893; you can see its first appearance in the Hill Mfg Co catalogue further down the page. The company name changed several times.
A youthful Ignaz Schwinn was employed by Hill and Fowler prior to striking out on his own to found Arnold Schwinn & Co.
1896 America Cycle Mfg Co ‘THE AMERICA’ Truss Frame
28″ Tall Frame
The Wheeler Reform Saddle
The very original 1898 bicycle featured here – ‘THE AMERICA’ – with American patents for its distinctive frame design, is a sought-after collector’s piece.
As you can see from these photos, it’s hard for a collector to resist such good condition original paintwork, decals and artwork on a bicycle. This style of ornate decoration is not found on British machines. Getting the bike back to England was not easy. The America was advertised on a vintage bicycle forum, but the seller could not find a local buyer. He did not want to dismantle and ship it, so my good friend Daniel made a 450 mile round trip to collect, dismantle and ship it to me …as it turned out, through storms and floods on the way! Thanks, Daniel.
The machine is in excellent original condition, except for the pedals; one of the lightweight quill pedals was missing, so I’ve used a replacement set for now. The tyres are perished. I can’t see much point in buying repro tubeless tyres for it, as the bike, with a 28″ frame, is too tall for me to ride. I installed a period American bell, as well as a frame bag and 1899 sidepath bicycle license.
There are two differences I’ve observed from Fowler Truss Frame bicycles: the front fork, and the hubs which, on The America, uniquely have two oilers.
THE ‘AMERICA’ TRUSS
FOWLER CYCLE MFG Co
Fowler Cycle Works,
50-54 State St, Chicago, Illinois, USA
Chicago became a magnet for many smaller makers in the trade as well – including Featherstone, Spalding, Hill and Moffat – along with countless suppliers and retailers. Many of these concerns quickly assembled in and around Chicago’s central business district, the Loop, and particularly on a stretch of Wabash Avenue that became known as Bicycle Row. This was one of Schwinn’s first stops when he got off the train in Chicago. His first opportunity came a few blocks away from Bicycle Row with the Hill Cycle Manufacturing Co, which hired him. …Schwinn could run a factory, and he soon rose to superintendent of the Hill plant, maker of the well-respected Fowler line. Hill was an ambitious firm at this time and already successful in the then uncommon marketing approach of building stock bicycles in several different sizes. For two years at Hill, Schwinn applied his mechanical and metallurgical knowledge in quest of the industry’s holy grail of the 1890s: lighter and faster machines.
– Schwinn Bicycles by Jay Pridmore, Jim Hurd
Hill Cycle Mfg Co were established by 1893: my research shows an entry for this company in This Sporting Life magazine at an exhibition in 1893.* They shared a stand with the Bearings Publishing Co. At the exhibition, Colonel McClure gave a talk on road improvement; McClure was backed by Pope to campaign for this issue which, of course, paved the way for increased bicycle sales …and, in due course, helped automobile sales when they came onto the scene ten years later.
Hill Cycle Mfg Co built Fowler bicycles. It’s likely that the Fowler Cycle Mfg Co was established as a separate concern as a result. There was also a connection with International Mfg Co which made similar bicycles, and was set up by Ignaz Schwinn who ran the Fowler factory. It was common practice at this time for local companies to work together when marketing their products nationally. But bicycle manufacturers also often set up separate companies for their different model names. I think it’s more likely in this instance that the Fowler and International Mfg companies were both offshoots of Hill Cycle Mfg Co.
Maybe – with the ‘international’ company name and model name ‘America’ – the International Mfg Co was established with export in mind?
The 1898 advert for The AMERICA, below, for example, is from New Zealand.
The 1893 picture below is from racer A. Kennedy, thanking Ignaz Schwinn for building him that bicycle. It looks very similar to the bicycle featured on this page. I assume that running the Hill factory (making the Fowler) and also setting up the factory for International Mfg Co gave Schwinn the experience he needed for his subsequent venture, setting up his own company in partnership with investor Adolph Arnold.
The extract below, from the 1893 Fowler catalogue, states ‘patent applied for’ next to the Truss Frame title, so that would appear to confirm when the model started.
Here’s the catalogue’s title page…
Fowler Cycle Mfg Co grew into one of Chicago’s largest bicycle businesses but, as the bicycle industry expanded, every manufacturer of expensive machines faced increased competition from cheap bicycles. This 1897 article from The Chicago Daily Times sums it up:
Chicago, October 22nd: An assignment was made today by the Fowler Cycle Co, one of the largest bicycle concerns in the West. The company has not been doing a flourishing business for some time and has keenly felt the competition of cheap wheels.
The press reports below shed further light on the company failure. The article about the winding-up of the Fowler Cycle Mfg Co is from the New York Times of 23rd October, 1897.
The following report is dated 30th December 1897. The ex-president of Fowler Cycle Co, Frank T. Fowler, bought the inventory of the company, valued at $73,000, for $25,000.
This Sporting Life magazine in 1897 reported (below) that F.C. Ferrin, previously the manager of Fowler Cycle Manufacturing Co, at their New England depot at 7 Park Square, Boston, purchased this branch of the business. This new company was called F.C. Ferrin & Co.
AMERICA CYCLE MFG CO
319 Michigan Ave. Chicago
International Mfg Co and Fowler shared the same parent company, Hill Mfg Co of Chicago.
Compare the chainwheel above, with the illustration below from G. Donald Adams’ book Collecting & Restoring Antique Bicycles.
This is Adams’ description: ‘A feature of the American bicycle, made by the International Mfg Co, Chicago, and the Fowler, made by the Fowler Cycle Co, also of Chicago, was a bifurcated seat tube (above) that was claimed to be as strong and as rigid as the usual tube while being lighter.’
It is not actually an AMERICAN but an AMERICA. The name is easily confused. The American Bicycle Co was a conglomerate of U.S manufacturers headed by, and later taken over by Col. Albert Pope. This one is the America Cycle Mfg Co.
The 1896 advert above shows International Mfg Co as the manufacturer. However, I found an advert in the May 1896 issue of Munsey’s magazine (below) which states that AMERICA CYCLE MFG CO is the successor of International Mfg Co and that they owned the patent. I assume that in the first four months of 1896 the company changed hands.
LEONARD BABY BLISS
Each year in the 1890s saw bicycle designers strive to make lighter machines. In England, helical tubing was adopted, with layers of thin tube wrapped around two or three deep to strengthen the tube. Such were the advances made, that bicycles from 1886 were 12 times the weight of those from 1896.
Another method of frame-strengthening was to add a ‘truss.’ The America bicycle was advertised as being a lightweight bicycle with a strengthened frame, and the company contracted America’s heaviest man, Leonard ‘Baby’ Bliss, to ride its bicycles for publicity events to prove the strength of the truss seat tube design.