For the past several years now, I’ve been studying the emergence of precision metalworking industries and the birth of mass production in 19th-century Hartford, CT—one of the six major cases studies in our forthcoming exhibition, Places of Invention (opening July 1, 2015). One of the key figure’s in Hartford’s industrial history is Albert A. Pope (1843–1909).
Pope grew up in Boston and served with distinction for the Thirty-fifth Massachusetts Regiment during the Civil War. After the war, “Colonel Pope” returned to Boston and built a successful shoe-maker’s supply business. During a visit to the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pope witnessed demonstrations of a high-wheel bicycle, a novelty from Britain. Sensing a commercial opportunity, Pope began importing bicycles from England and hatched a plan to produce them domestically. So it was in 1878 that Pope rode the train from Boston to Hartford, then, to the amazement of the city’s onlookers, rode his high-wheeler from the station down Capitol Avenue to the Weed Sewing Machine Company. Pope approached factory superintendent George Fairfield with a proposal: would Weed agree to build a test run of 50 bicycles under contract? When Fairfield agreed, Pope (via the Weed Sewing Machine Company) became the first domestic manufacturer of bicycles in the United States.
The Pope Manufacturing Company, maker of “Columbia” brand bicycles, thrived under its owner’s shrewd leadership. Sales boomed, and Pope eventually gained control of Weed in 1881; sewing machine production continued alongside bicycles for another decade until Pope phased out the sewing machines in 1891 to focus exclusively on bicycles. By 1895, Pope’s expanded Hartford operations included five factories set on 17 acres, employing 4,000 workers, making him Hartford’s largest employer.
In 1896, Pope sat for an interview with a reporter for Cycling World, a London-based journal. Pope was coy about his business dealings in London, but must have been satisfied to be exporting his bicycles from Hartford after importing them England 20 years prior! Enjoy this interview in which Pope describes his Columbia bicycles, the bicycle “boom,” and his state-of-the-art Hartford factory complex.
An Interview with Albert A. Pope
From the Cycling World of London, 22 July 1896
Hearing that Colonel Pope was in London, I sought him out in order to discover what he intended doing in England. I found him at the Savoy Hotel seated amidst a throng of business callers, but quite willing to give an interview. “What am I going to do in England?” repeated the Colonel, as I put the question to him. “Well, I’m afraid that’s just about the one thing I can’t tell you. I can tell you one piece of news, though—I shan’t set up a factory in England, for the very good reason that I fancy I can make the machines at my present factory and send them over here for less than it would cost to manufacture them in England.”
Q: “Colonel, will you tell me something about the Columbia machines?”
A: “Well, as an Englishman accustomed to English-made bicycles, I suppose you will be interested to hear that the weight of our machines is only 25 lbs. ‘all on.’ We are enabled to make a good bicycle of this weight because of the exceptionally fine materials that we use. A great deal of the tubing is nickel-steel, which is fifty per cent stronger than any other tubing, inasmuch as it contains fifty percent of the carbon. So far as we know we are the only manufacturers in the world who can draw any quantity of nickel steel tubing.”
Q: “By the way, Colonel, what do you think of the boom? Is it going to last?”
A: “Yes, it is. I don’t think it has reached its height yet. Of course, after a time, the craze may subside a little, but I think there’ll be a steady increase in the demand for cycles.”
Author’s Note: In fact, 1896 was the peak of the bicycle boom, which was over by about 1900. Pope, in fact, had already begun to diversify, initiating experiments with automobiles starting in 1895.
Q: “I should like to have a few particulars concerning the construction of your machines, if I may?”
A: “Certainly. In the first place let me tell you that we show our works to anybody who likes to see them, and we have a man who does nothing else but attend to visitors. Of course we should be careful about showing everything to a rival manufacturer, and we don’t allow anyone to see certain parts of the works. No other manufacturer can have such machinery. I can’t give you any particulars, but I may tell you that one of those machines, with two men to look after it, will do the work of eighteen men. But to come to the cycles. Every bicycle we make is subjected to the closest inspection before it is allowed to leave the works. You may not know that a bicycle contains over 800 separate pieces, and each one is examined thoroughly before it is put into the machine. This vigilance system is expensive, but I am confident that it is a good one. Another special feature of our business is our employment of expert cyclists whose work simply consists in riding about on machines of almost every make. These men test the machines in every conceivable way, their one idea being to think out a perfect bicycle.”
Q: “One more question, Colonel.” Would you mind satisfying the public curiosity by letting me have a few facts and figures about the cycle works?”
A: “You can get some idea of the extent of the place when I tell you that we have 17 acres of floorage. Then we employ 200 clerks who are stationed in a large building all to themselves, and over 2,000 workmen. We have our own rubber works, steel-tube works, printing works, telegraph office, &c, &c. In fact, we make quite a little town by ourselves.”
- “An Interview with Albert A. Pope,” Cycling World (London), 22 July 1896. As reproduced in David Herlihy, Bicycle: The History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006, pp. 276-277.
- Epperson, Bruce D. Peddling Bicycles to America: The Rise of an Industry. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Co., 2010, especially Chapter 2: “Colonel Pope Goes to Hartford,” pp. 24-34.
- Goddard, Stephen. Colonel Albert Pope and His American Dream Machines: The Life and Times of a Bicycle Tycoon Turned Automobile Maker. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland and Co., 2000.
- Hounshell, David. From the American System to Mass Production, 1800–1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984. In particular, see Chapter 5: “From the American System Toward Mass Production: The Bicycle Industry in the Nineteenth Century,” pp. 189-216.