This blog post is part of an ongoing series in collaboration with Archives Month Philly, a city-wide festival each October celebrating historical records, archives, and rare books. Learn more and check out their events calendar at https://archivesmonthphilly.com.
Guest blogger: Alex Palma. Alex works as a contractor at various archives throughout historic Philadelphia.
Manayunk’s “Wall” has long been a badge of honor amongst cyclists in Philadelphia. Indeed, for the Philadelphia International Cycling Classic (in its various iterations), the Manayunk Wall has become a zenith for the entire citywide race. In a 2013 interview for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Olympic Silver Medalist Brian Walton said that the Manayunk Wall ultimately “...defines the winner of the race.” The Manayunk “Wall” and the associated bicycle race have been a staple of Philadelphia culture for decades.
If we dig deeper, however, we realize that Philadelphia, overall has a storied relationship with the bicycle. My favorite Philadelphia bike story begins in 1819, when Charles Willson Peale, a prolific Philadelphia artist best known for his depictions of the American Founding fathers, encountered the The "Draisiana" on display in Baltimore.
The Draisiana was a precursor to the modern bicycle. James Stewart, the craftsman who had put the bicycle on display, adapted his Draisine from a European design by Karl Von Drais. Stewart claimed that this new mode of transportation combined the best elements of walking, carriage, and horseback riding. While no single design can really be pointed to as the original design for the bicycles we know and love today, the Draisine was an important early iteration.
Charles Willson Peale was enraptured by the new device. Upon returning to his home (dubbed Belfield) in Philadelphia, Peale had his own version of the machine fashioned from an old thresher- a machine used in the processing of grain. A local blacksmith was hired to transform the hunk of scrap into a riding machine.
Peale’s sons, Reubens and Franklin were greatly interested in the resulting machine. In fact, after Charles Willson Peale placed the riding machine in his famed museum (then located in what is now Independence Hall), Franklin Peale built his own wooden version of his father’s device. The Peale’s 19th century riding machine was able to reach a top speed of 9 miles per hour.
Historian Margaret Guroff speculates that these early machines fostered hope in an inexpensive mode of transport for all. A lofty hope in an age where the most ubiquitous form of transportation- the horse- was also accessible only to monied classes of people. Peale’s homemade Draisine was part of a larger hobby, but it was a small movement. As Guroff points out, the Draisine very quickly fizzled out as it became outlawed on the sidewalks of many American cities.
A drawing of the Draisine, as depicted by Charles Willson Peale himself, can be found in the Collections of the American Philosophical Society.
Additionally, the American Philosophical Society is running an exhibit on the Peales entitled “Curious Revolutionaries: The Peales of Philadelphia.” It’s running until December 30th, 2017.
Bicycle and/or Peale fans, celebrate Archives Month by visiting your local repositories!
- Records of the Philadelphia Bicycle club at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
- The Peale-Sellers Family Collection at the American Philosophical Society.
- History of the Belfield estate at La Salle University Special Collections.
Guroff, Margaret. 2016. The mechanical horse: How the bicycle reshaped American life. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. Pages 8-10.
Senior, Robert. "The Legend of the Manayunk Wall." Philly.com. May 30, 2013. Accessed Sept. 28, 2017. http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/sportsdoc/The-legend-of-the-Manayunk-Wall.html.
Chesnick, Eugene. 2010. “Farm persevere: A novel.”