Baby Bliss & The America

Before cycle racing became the world’s primary sport in the 1890s, ’trick cycling’ was all the rage in the United States. 

Before he became world champion cyclist, a young Major Taylor started out as a trick cyclist. Another trick cyclist was Leonard Harmon Bliss, who was 6ft 3 inches tall and a heavyweight – at his peak he weighed over 200kg. Though he did take part in ‘exhibition races’ his weight obviously precluded serious

Nevertheless, Bliss did find a remarkable way to capitalise on his height and weight within the cycle industry – he became a tester for bicycles to prove the strength of their frames. As ‘Baby Bliss’

he worked for the America Cycle Mfg Co, featuring in advertisements to illustrate that even if the rider was heavier than usual the integrity of the frame would not be compromised. Between 1895 and 1897 he toured the USA with major publicity and newspaper articles everywhere he went. On a trip to Briain in 1896 he met Thomas Longley, claimed to be the world’s heaviest man at 266 kg. This public relations work was pure eye-catching theatre, but it came at a very sensitive time for the cycle industry. The ‘bicycle boom’ of the early 1890s ended in the USA in 1897.

Whereas previously every bicycle built would find a buyer as more and more people joined the latest cycle craze, over-production now affected the market, forcing prices down with the result that many cycle makers were going out of business. A particular aspect of this problem was that the market had been flooded with badly-built bicycles that fell apart. Many people buying a bicycle for the first time found it hard to tell the difference between a poorly-built and a genuine quality made machine, particularly when a smooth-talking salesman was involved, and the cycling press picked up on complaints. As a result, a market developed for bicycles that illustrated extra strength in their frames. The first company in the USA to take out a patent for a ’truss frame’ was the Fowler Cycle Co; the America Cycle Mfg Co was an offshoot of Fowler, but by using Baby Bliss to promote the truss frame, ‘The America’ became the best known truss model around the world in the late 1890s.

The idea of a strengthened frame became so entrenched as a result that the innovative US company Iver Johnson Cycle Co created their own truss design. In order to avoid the Fowler patent, instead of a trussed seat tube, theirs had a truss (extra tube) connected to the top tube, and this design became known as the ’Truss bridge.’ Patented in 1901, it was very well-promoted – ‘Trust the Truss’ – and was still being manufactured in the 1920s. World champion Major Taylor rode one for many years, so its distinctive design became familiar around the world, and Labor subsequently made a similar frame under licence in France.

British cycle makers were affected by similar issues. Prices of well-built bicycles were kept artificially high by a cartel of manufacturers, but, by 1898, overproduction heralded the end of the boom years, and badly made bicycles – many of them counterfeit copies of top manufacturers’ models – caused adverse publicity. The outcome was that top cycle makers started making all their own components rather than using those available through the cycle trade. The best known example of this is Rudge-Whitworth, who dropped their prices at the same time while introducing especially lightweight machines, and consequently became the world’s top-producing cycle maker.

Another solution to the poor publicity generated by badly-built and counterfeit bicycles was to make bicycles whose visual appearance illustrated their strength. Thus the X Frame came into being. The leading patentees were Referee and Raleigh, but soon other companies joined the ‘X frame patent wars’ as they tried to develop bicycles with extra bracing without infringing on similar existing designs.

3. Raleigh X frame

By the early 1900s, the X frame was firmly entrenched in Britain and Iver Johnson’s truss bridge frame dominated in the USA. The Fowler/America design of a strengthened seat tube was by now outdated, but the publicity generated by Baby Bliss and the

America Cycle Mfg Co had been a major inspiration to the creators of the new cycle designs, as well as illustrating to the public that cycle manufacturers could rise to the challenges of weaker frames and bring them designs that were strong enough to withstand the rigours of cycling at increasingly faster speed on unmade roads.

1897 ‘THE AMERICA’ TRUSS at The Museum –