1896 Fowler Truss Frame
‘Truss Seat Tube’ Bicycle with Wooden Handlebars & Bowden Cable/Spoon Brake
Manufactured by Hill Cycle Co for
Fowler Cycle Mfg Co
(and also International Mfg Co, Chicago, which subsequently became America Cycle Mfg Co)
A bicycle with a Truss Bridge frame design – such as that pioneered by Iver Johnson – always stands out from a crowd. It was a very popular style of the day. Being so distinctive, it remains so today.
The Truss Seat Tube design, on the other hand, is not well-known. It was expensive to make and only a few manufacturers produced bicycles in this style. Hill Mfg Co had the American patent. Today, only a few survive. The unique styling of this bicycle is even more distinctive than a Truss Bridge Frame. I have never seen another.
The bicycle was previously owned by a local friend of mine, who used it for many club rides.
The Fowler Truss Tube frame first appeared in 1893; you can see its first appearance in the Hill Mfg Co catalogue below. 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.
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’ International Mfg Co was established with export in mind? The 1898 advert 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.
As well as being an extremely rare bicycle with a unique frame design, this bicycle has two other features that are particularly attractive. The wooden handlebars were an upmarket accessory of the time, and they look glorious on this bicycle.
BOWDEN CABLE SPOON BRAKE
The accessory Bowden cable front spoon brake is very interesting in its design, and always attracts the interest of fellow enthusiasts who see it.
AMERICA CYCLE MFG CO
319 Michigan Ave. Chicago
International Mfg Co and Fowler hared the same parent company, Hill Mfg Co of Chicago.
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.
Fowler proclaimed the benefits of this style of frame: ‘When you see a high grade wheel with a Truss frame you know it is a Fowler.’