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Bicycles and Heating History

There was once a time when the plumbing and heating industry was threatened by bicycles. In this episode, Dan Holohan tells the story of how this new and exciting invention was banned from business.


Ads for bicycles from the June 25, 1896 issue of Domestic Engineering

Bicycle Ads 1896 


Episode Transcript

I have a photo from a yellowed trade magazine that's more than 100 years old. It's of a plumber's shop in a Midwestern city, and the people in the photo look proud as they pose for the camera. It must have been such a big deal to have your photo taken for a magazine back when photography was still relatively new. The older men in the photo wear derbies, and I've learned that this means they are the Master plumbers. The younger men in the photo, the apprentices, are all wearing beanies. Imagine doing that today.

Nearly all of the people in the photo are staring straight into the camera's lens. One of the Masters is chewing the stump of a cigar. He has his big hand on a tall, cast-iron radiator. It's a beauty, and I imagine it's still in service in some old building. Radiators last a long time in America.

On the right-hand side of the photo, there is a tall apprentice. He looks to be in his late-teens, and he is not staring at the camera. No, he's turned a full 90 degrees to his right, and he's looking downward. We follow his gaze and he appears to be looking at a large, cast-iron radiator. Or so I thought.

As time went by, and as I learned more about our industry, I came to realize that the apprentice in the photo wasn't looking at the radiator. He was looking at the bicycle that rested against it.

He's wearing a long-sleeved white shirt, long trousers, a dark vest and a bowtie. He has that beanie on his head, and he has his hands on his belt. He's learning forward slightly, and he's smiling a bit. He looks like he wants to jump on that bicycle. It was a new invention, and it was taking the trade by storm. It was how a young man could stand out.

There's another old magazine in my office. They published this one on July 17, 1897, and on one of the pages, there are three advertisements. One is for the beautifully ornate Gem radiator from the Corry Radiator Company of Corry, Pennsylvania. The company lasted only two years before U.S. Radiator bought them, but I'll bet there are Corry radiators still in service. They're gorgeous.

Next to the Corry ad is an ad for, "Your friend. . . the Kenwood Bicycle – a wheel you can depend upon." That's what they called bicycles in those days. They called them, "wheels." I learn from the ad that for lightness, swiftness and strength, the Kenwood is unsurpassed. It was a very popular brand back then, and Kenwood showed their wheels at the Eastern National Cycle Exposition during the winter of 1898. This show took up two floors at New York City's Grand Central Palace, which was, after Madison Square Garden, the largest exhibition space in New York. There were more than 200 exhibitors at that show. Bicycles were the latest thing, and Kenwood and other manufacturers had they eyes on the trades.

Just below the Kenwood Bicycle and the Corry Radiator ads, I see another ad. This one is for the Octa-Brass Union, manufactured by the Kelly & Jones Company of Greensburg, PA. The ad explains, "These unions are heavy and well-made, and on account of their octagonal shape can be made upon pipe quickly with a wrench, avoiding the use of tongs."

Isn't that wonderful? There was a time in America when a simple union, a fitting that can be made upon a pipe with a wrench, something you've touched thousands of times, was worthy of its own ad in a national magazine. A new fitting that can be made upon a pipe with a wrench!

Everything that we today take for granted was once new and exciting. Everything. There are no boring products. There are only people who can't, or won't, see the beauty of invention in each product.

And each product that we touch has presented a threat to someone at some time. This is from The Metal Worker magazine. The date is August 5, 1899.

"It is apparent that the bicycle is held in different esteem by plumbers in different parts of the country, and the effort is being continued to prevent its use in some sections, while some men will use it in preference to the streetcars for reaching work. A master plumber in an Eastern city of 30,000 inhabitants, which has a large outlying suburban population, keeps five wheels for hire and the use of his men. It is a frequent occurrence that he has no wheels to hire, owing to his men having them all in use, going from one job to another. The men prefer riding to waiting at stations for trains, and are conscientious enough to want to do a fair day's work even when it is jobbing to be done in a half dozen different country houses a few miles apart, where the train service would not be convenient. An entirely different view is taken in Los Angeles, California, where the Herald says:

"'One of the causes of frequent bickerings is the bicycle. The Plumbers' Union has a rule, which is rigidly enforced, prohibiting the members from utilizing the bike in connection with their work. The rule is regarded as necessary to protect the men. When the bicycle came into popular use, the plumbers found that some of their number would go spinning around town on their wheels for the benefit of the bosses. The result was that the plumber without a bike soon found himself at a disadvantage. One of them explained the matter in this wise: "'Suppose two men were sent out on a job and both had practically the same kind and the same amount of work to do. They would both leave the shop at the same time, but the fellow with the wheel would reach the place where the work was to be done before his brother plumber would. If some tool or piece of material had been forgotten, the man with the wheel would go spinning to the shop, while the other fellow would have to walk or take a streetcar. The man with the wheel could make better time on a job in consequence, and the boss would be liable to find him a more desirable man, notwithstanding that it was no fault of the other man. In fact, the man without the wheel might be the fastest and best workman. We want this rule against the bicycle enforced in all the shops.'"

Threatened by a bicycle. Isn't that fascinating?

And that is what we’re going to keep doing here with the Dead Men’s Tales podcast. We’re going to share the stories behind the work and some fun facts you may not know about heating history. We’ll laugh and learn and we’ll have some fun together.

You up for that? So am I.

Next time, I’ll tell you a tale about a building that sits in New York’s Central Park. It has been many things, that building, and it’s older than the park itself. And it has steam heat. I can’t wait to tell you about it. See you next time.

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