In the years following the introduction of the pedal bicycle, cycling was a gentleman’s pastime and bicycles were not built with female riders in mind. Velocipedes and then Ordinaries (‘penny farthings’) required considerable athleticism. Women who wished to share the hobby with their menfolk rode tricycles instead, usually around a city park while the men went off road racing. The introduction of the first successful ‘safety bicycles’ in 1886 changed that and, by the end of the 1880s, cycle manufacturers were considering a new female market.
The first ladies’ bicycles are what we now describe as single tube machines, similar to a loopframe but with an unsupported down tube. As the female market was initially hypothetical, rather than build bicycles exclusively for women, some companies hedged their bets and made the type of bicycle you see here …a ‘Convertible’. It was a men’s machine, but with the top tube unbolted a woman could ride it in her skirt. The advertisement for the Union Convertible shows a chaincase, no doubt fitted if a woman would be using it.
Within just a few years women had wholeheartedly embraced the new hobby and companies started building bicycles designed only for women. The ‘Convertible’ soon became a passing phase, a transitional model within the evolution of bicycles that was out of date almost before it was put onto the market. The main reason for its obsolescence is that it was not really suitable for female riders because machines of this time were still heavy and had 30″ wheels. When, by 1891, bicycles were designed exclusively for women, they weighed less and were also built to accept smaller wheels.
There are not many survivors of the Convertible style today in adult machines, though the design continued to be used occasionally for children’s bicycles.
1890 Union Cycle Mfg Co Model No 10
Convertible top tube: Ladies’ or Gents’
30″ Wheels with Solid tyres
Frame No C 510
The Union Convertible is in excellent unrestored original condition. Intead of a headbadge it has a makers plate bolted to the front of the downtime, just before the steering pivot. The leather top on the 1890 Garford saddle has been replaced, and one rear mudgurd stay has been fabricated, otherwise everything is original. I only have two jobs to do on it: replace one spoke in the rear wheel, and have a pair of reproduction pedals adapted to fit the unique pedal crank slots.
As you can see in the accompanying photos, the Union Cnvertible has some delightfully quirky fittings.
1895 UNION CATALOGUE EXTRACTS