The Bicyclist

More glass plate negative prints from the unknown photographer collection now at the Washington State Historical Society.


The Bicyclist.en

A crafted photograph from almost exactly a century ago. The young man is obviously a bicycle enthusiast with quilted knickers that have no cuffs to tangle in the single gear sprocket and a bit of padding for the minimal leather seat and other rugged road hazards. His striped jersey has a sportsman’s style that fits perfectly with his jaunty cap. The bike is spotless and clearly understood by its rider and the photographer as the showpiece in the image. Its summer and that might be a lake reflected in the open windows but the photographer is unseen, a professional that knows better than to capture his own image on somebody else’s glass.

Bicyclist and friend.en

And here is our bicyclist again this time in professional work clothes with a colleague who rides an identical velocipede. The photo moves the story along in suppositions, the jackets and ties suggest they work in the city, commuters with day jobs where starched collars and cuffs are part of the uniform. Our anonymous bicyclist loves the checkered cap, the lower posture in his bike’s handlebars and probably the road itself. His coat is buttoned high and the jacket sweeps back to let his knees work the pedals. Still a speedster with his ride.

The Shop.1.en.1

Here’s another plate that seems to go with the story even though its badly damaged by moisture. Its shows the inside of a bike shop continuing the sense that the unknown photographer shares the bicyclist’s passion for petals, wheels and speed. A century ago, all weather roads were a modern convenience and automobiles were a novelty compared to bicycles. Durable rubber tires were developed as much for bicycles as they were for automobiles and bike shops were common on even small town main streets. They were the halfway point between livery stables and parking lots. But cars were coming. In Washington State more miles of road were built during 1920s than any decade before or since thanks to the gas tax. And while paved roads made it faster and smoother for our bicyclist it also made it more dangerous competing with model T Fords and REO speedwagons.

There may be an editorial subtext to this last glass plate photograph taken by our bike loving photographer. You decide.



More from this collection to come. Virtually all of the glass plates you will see have water damage but the way the emulsion melts and sometimes separates from the glass has its own authenticity and beauty. In the auto wreck photo above the brittle, cracked emulsion in the upper corner almost seems like part of the upturned action. In many of the images to come, condition becomes part of the narrative. You will see.

Written by

This site is about the way history, in this case of a city and it's surrounds, is remembered or recorded in stories and small bits of memory. It's also about the way images and stories go together, how they inform and enrich each other and how we as thinking people fill in the content between a narrative and a visual document. So here is my city in time past, the way it looked and the people and events that create its character. For more than 20 years I have taught a 5 credit course on the History of Tacoma at the University of Washington Tacoma. With an average of 30 or 40 students a year, each doing a research paper as their primary focus for the course, I have benefited from many paths of inquiry and many researched and assembled stories. Here are some of them in the retelling along with the treasures of photographs and images in the collections of the Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma Public Library, University of Washington Digital Archives, Washington State Archives at the Office of the Secretary of State, Library of Congress, Washington State University, Alaska State Library, and many other archives, libraries and private collections.

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