Vintage bicycle posters: Pedalling aspiration

Gladiator Cycles poster, George Massias Gladiator Cycles poster, George Massias c.1895- 1900 (image via Wikimedia Commons).

The bicycle transformed personal mobility at the turn of the 20th century. At the same time, advances in lithographic printing brought exciting bursts of color and a kinetic energy to posters, luring world-renowned artists to test their ability to draw bicycle wheels and spokes. Today, vintage bicycle posters are a popular collector’s item for fans of the bicycle and poster collectors alike.

The bicycle today is part of day to day life, so it’s easy to underestimate the transformative effect it had on society. But the arrival of equally sized wheels, a chain to drive the rear wheel, and rubber tyres leading up to the turn of the last century afforded people a level of mobility not experienced before. Over time, bicycles evolved to be comfortable enough for women to ride in long skirts, and even played a role in the developing suffrage movement, according to social reformer Susan B. Anthony.

Anything that generates this level of excitement and interest from the public is sure to spark the interest of entrepreneurs – and in turn advertisers. They jumped on this new technology, illuminating the streets with vibrant splashes of red, yellow and blue with this liberating invention. The trend didn’t go unnoticed by a number of renowned poster artists looking for steady income.

Artistic influence on vintage bicycle posters

One of them was the celebrated French Post-Impressionist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The La Blanchisseuse painter joined the ranks of artists bringing color to city streets through posters in 1896. He had been commissioned by the British bicycle company, Simpson, to advertise its newest range of bicycle chains.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec Cycle Michael circa 1896

Henri de Toulouse-LautrecCycle Michael vintage poster c. 1896. Auction passed (Est: £10,000 – £15,000) via Christie’s (June 2008).

However, his first attempt was far from a success as far as Simpson was concerned. Inspired by British cyclist, Jimmy Michael, riding with a toothpick between his teeth, Lautrec created 200 prints of the poster at his own expense, but Simpson rejected the design as the manufacturer believed the pedals in the painting weren’t an accurate depiction.

The decision hurt Toulouse-Lautrec’s wallet, but would prove to be a bonus for collectors looking for rare work by the artist. And Toulouse-Lautrec was given a second chance by Simpson four years later with his ‘La Chaine Simpson’ poster. It proved considerably more popular and remains a hit among collectors today. 

For those that could afford it in the early days, pedal power brought with it a liberating sense of freedom, which is clearly evident in the posters of the age. This is perfectly encapsulated by Emile Clouet’s 1895 Cycles “Le Globe” poster that seemingly encapsulates the potential for unchaperoned freedom at the wheel of a bicycle. 

Racy bicycles!

This level of freedom was almost incomprehensible for women at that time and the posters reflected this level of anticipation and exhilaration. It manifested as a weightless excitement similar to the freedom of flying in Clouet’s poster. Unparalleled freedom was a popular theme among posters of the era, and was repeated in the oft-replicated advert for Gladiator Cycles (see top of page). The latter takes the flying metaphor for freedom even further, as inhibitors like location, gravity, and even clothing are cast aside. Gladiator Cycles ceased trading in 1920, but the image has endured via a Central Coast Californian wine. The image proved too racy for the US state of Alabama, who banned the wine in 2009 for its depiction of a naked nymph!

In fact, advertising at the turn of the last century in the States was a considerably more reserved. This is ably demonstrated by Dayton Cycles’ advert for America’s Finest Wheel, which features a line of people (fully clothed) admiring the new wheeled contraption. Similarly, America Crescent Cycles’ 1898 poster has a more wholesome feel, although the theme of freedom remains with the moon offering the suggestion of limitless destinations.

Charles Brun: Paris-Brest-Paris vintage bicycle poster c. 1901.

Charles Le Brun: Paris-Brest-Paris vintage bicycle poster c. 1901. Auction passed (est: €900 – €1,500) via Van Sabben Auctions (June 2014).

A few years later, in 1903, a new destination would arrive on the map for bicycle enthusiasts, but this time there wouldn’t the same focus on leisure. Endurance would be the name of the game as the 2,200 mile Tour de France was dreamt up by struggling newspaper L’Auto to help boost sales. Maurice Garin would write his name into the history books as the first winner of the historic race, having already won a predecessor to the race in 1901, as depicted in the sophisticated energy of the Paris-Brest-Paris poster above, draped in a patriotic French tricolor. 

New-found freedom

For advertisers though, it was the depiction of a new found sense of freedom that would dominate posters for decades to come, instead of its sporting prowess. French manufacturer Onyx Cycles were still using this liberating approach in 1925 in their poster depicting a woman in a cape riding off into the sunset.   

In the same year, a sense of sophistication began to creep into the aspirational approach of advertising bicycles. The sense of freedom was still there, but there was also something more. Félix Fournery‘s design for The De Dion Bouton Company demonstrates this elegance with a sophisticated woman ready to ride her stylish bicycle along a beautiful shoreline.

A bold approach

Not every manufacturer pursued the same human-focused approach to their advertising though. Some kept things much simpler. Take Royal Enfield Bicycles’ 1930s no-nonsense approach that took a typographic approach to the design. The slogan hints towards their down-to earth origins as a gun manufacturer in Worcestershire, UK, before they diversified into bicycles and motorcycles.

Alternatively, not every aspiration is the same, as Schmidt’s of Philadelphia showed in their vintage bicycle poster of 1971, which had its own idea of an ideal life. The bicycle was a central feature of this vision, but in this instance it was there to share a moment with a loved one and (perhaps most importantly to the advert) pick up a refreshing case of Philadelphia’s finest brew. This is perhaps one aspiration that we can all achieve with ease.