John Shire: Detroit’s first bicycle manufacturer?

John Shire's velocipede at the Smithsonian in 1914

The 1877 Detroit Business Directory lists Corktown resident John Shire as a carriage maker located at 151 Larned (near St. Antoine.)

The next year he’s listed as a bicycle manufacturer — the only one listed in Detroit.

He remained the sole bicycle, then velocipede manufacturer through 1892. In 1881 he moved his business to what is now 1518 18th Street then 1940 23rd Street just two years later. There is new infill housing at the first address. The second address is residential as well.

One of Shire’s bikes from 1879 is in the Smithsonian Institute’s collection. They describe the bike as follows:

The forked frame and the front-wheel fork are both made of wood with iron reinforcements. The front-wheel fork pivots at the front of the frame, straight wooden handlebars surmounting it. Also serving as a pivot point for the front fork is the upper end of a nearly vertical wooden brace, the lower end of which is connected by iron bars to the lower extremity of the frame. Both the wheels have wooden hubs, spokes, and felloes, with thin metal tires. Each wheel has 14 spokes staggered in the hub. The diameter of the front wheel is 38 inches and of the rear, 28 3/4 inches. Wooden crank arms, having a 5-inch throw but not adjustable as to their working length, are attached to the front axle. Spool-shaped wooden pedals are mounted at the ends of the arms. Oil cups are mounted at each end of the two axles. A wide wooden mudguard is affixed above the rear wheel. The saddle is made of wood, canvas, and leather. There is no brake. The finish on this velocipede is black with both gold and red striping. The mudguard bears a large piece of gold-leaf scrollwork similar to that found on Concord coaches and other horse-drawn commercial vehicles, and the front fork bears gold-leaf scrollwork that is more delicate.

Wood wheels and metal tires meant this early bike was truly a bone-shaker. It had a modest 38 gear inches.

Shire showed his machine at the 1879 Michigan State Fair. Oddly enough it was shown in the Farm Implements division.

Shire also received a patent in 1879 for the bike’s hammock-style saddle. This design certainly would have cushioned the ride from Detroit’s rough road surfaces, which were often paved with cedar or brick.

Shire also received a patent earlier in 1876 for a sleigh design.

Was Shire the first bicycle/velocipede manufacturer in Detroit? We’re not sure. There were at least three other velocipede patents issued to Detroiters before Shire.

While these contraptions look interesting, we can’t find any evidence that they went into production.

We do know that unlike Shire’s velocipede, these three are not in the Smithsonian.

Special thanks to Mikeg for helping us translate pre-1920s Detroit addresses to their modern equivalents.

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One Response to “John Shire: Detroit’s first bicycle manufacturer?”

  1. Jack Crawford Says:

    In 1993 we purchased from a friend a Shire boneshaker much like the one you have in the photo above. As a specialty bicycle retailer and vintage bicycle collector for many years, I have come across others as you have described above. One such bike was at the Interbike Trade Fair in Anaheim, CA a number of years ago. At the time, the bike was a part of the Schwinn Family Collection prior to the collection selling to the Ohio based museum, The Bicycle Museum of America of New Bremen. That particular bike was dated by Jim Hurd, the Schwinn Family Museum curator at the time as having been constructed in 1869. His, as does the one in the photo above had steel straps as the primary suspension beam. It also had canvas with the leather on the saddle. Our bike was absolutely identical to the Jim Hurd bike we had seen with exception to that lower suspension beam. Ours was made of wood as was the rest of the bike not iron as in the 1869 model. Our model also did not have any canvas with the leather saddle but rather just a leather sling type saddle that had rotted over the years. There was no remnant of any stitching or canvas as a part of the saddle on our Shire. When we contacted Mr. Hurd regarding some assistance in helping us date the bicycle more accurately and after several days of research, Mr. Hurd telephoned back to tell us he felt ours was a couple years earler than the one he had custody of, like the one in your photo above.
    We feel it may be possible that the one placed in the Smithsonian in 1914, like the one in the photo above that you have dated 1879 was probably built more closely to the 1869 date that Jim Hurd had dated the Schwinn owned one which is exactly like the one shown above. We believe this for several reasons. First, as early as 1870, the first the high wheeler had arrived on the scene along with steel spokes and rubber tires. Further photographs exist of Pierre Lallement on a bone shaker from 1867 and Henry Micheaux from 1869 that show both men (both of whom claimed to be the inventor of the velocipede) riding these new machines that were very much more ornate and advanced than John Shire’s version you have dated some 10 years later. Also, the two bikes mentioned above of Lallemant and Micheaux had brakes and other accoutrements that Shire’s model did not yet have. Further evidence to this is a bicycle that is now located in the San Jose Historical Museum. It was a man by the name of Alexandre Lefebvre who in it is said that in 1842 had built a much earlier machine with a rear wheel drive and that this bike was brought to California sometime in 1861 or 1862. Due to this and other printed materials from our resources we feel you may have mis dated the photo above and we do indeed feel that it was John Shire of Detroit that had borrowed the design he had seen earlier in France as many others had by as late as 1867 and came up with his very unique design. The most fascinating thing about this design is the fact that in 1993 we were an authorized Ibis Dealer. Ibis was a new upstart during the first generation Mountain bikes surge of the late 1980’s through the mid to late 1990’s. The short lived company, Ibis, had a titanium bicycle that they had called the “Bow Tie”. The “Bow Tie” was a full suspension model featuring two triangles of titanium tubing that was connected in the middle as the Shire was some 100 plus years earlier. Those two triangles, like the Shire design is what gave the bike its suspension as they both “scissor” at this central junction giving the both Shire’s design and the much later mountain bike from Ibis some damping capabilities. It is believed that the Shire model we have that was professionally dated as having been built as early as 1866/1867 was upgraded by 1869 as a result of premature fatigue of the down strap originally made of hickory. The strap was later made of iron so as to offer some more durability in this very vulnerable area. Finally, we feel then, that with all of the supporting documents we have come across, that it was some 50 years prior to the velocipede of the 1860s that the original hobby horse had come and gone as a stale fashion statement of the elite and that by the 1860’s there were several companies in France and throughout Scotland that were making velocipedes. It only stands to reason that America, who had already pioneered many other great technologies by this time would have had their own versions of the velocipede long before 1879 as stated in the article above. The Shire was built just shortly after the Civil War had ended, by then we had photography, steam power, electricity was not widespread but it was Mr. Samuel Morse an American artist visiting Paris that had brought us the telegraph machine and his Morse Code by as early as the 1830’s which took nearly 20 years for it to catch on and be used in the untamed west. The Brooklyn Bridge was under construction at this time as were many other great inventions that brought about the Industrial Revolution. Chief Sitting Bull was still alive, the Transcontinental Railway was completed in 1869 and the last of the great Comanche warriors were proudly defending their turf. The Shire that sits in our shop is pretty primitive for a date of 1879. Further, I don’t think it would have taken the Americans some 10 years to come up with their own velocipede when in fact, the Bicycle had created a firestorm of personal transportation. By the turn of the 19th century there were over 400 separate bicycle manufacturers in the USA alone. The highwheeler was a product of the late 1870’s and was an improvement over the boneshakers of the 1860’s due to the simple fact that the cyclist could expand the front wheel diameter as long as his legs could reach the pedals (the only gearing the bike had) thus making for a safer and much faster machine. In addition by then the rider now sat directly above the front axle as opposed to behind the large front wheel that would get in the way of sharp turns and restricted wheel diameter thus restricting its overall speed. By 1895 it was Eduardo Bianchi of Italy who claims to be the first to come up with the chain driven machine we all know of today as the “Safety Cycle”. The tricycles you mention above were being built as separate devices and were popular in the mid to late 1870’s. There were many different contraptions using sewing machine treadles and other technologies from this era. The tricycles had their own separate markets and their development are not be confused with progression of the bicycle. I hope this information proves helpful and I also hope I am not mistaken. The most fascinating thing about the antique bicycle as an invention is that it continues to cause us to learn something new about the bike all the time. I could be very much mistaken, so if there is evidence contrary to that which I have stated herein please let me be the first to know as I continue to research this ever changing industry.

    Thank you and I apologize for the detail, hope you find it useful.

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