George Eastman and Bicycles

Submitted by Jesse Peers,

Far be it from me to compare myself to George Eastman, but there’s at least one thing we have in common: We both had stages of our lives in which we were enthusiastic about bicycling. My enthusiasm started last year with the coinciding of ROC Transit Day and the breaking down of my car. I figured it was worth a shot bicycling the mile and a half to and from Eastman House. I saved up for a decent bike and gave it a try. I haven’t regretted it since. In addition to the 10 minute ride to work, I use my bike to meet up with friends, grocery shop, and get to Red Wings games.

Several employees and students at Eastman House commute regularly on their bikes. The racks are full on nice days. Several employees and students at Eastman House commute regularly on their bikes. The racks are full on nice days.

 

Here are some neat facts about George Eastman and bicycles: George Eastman bicycled to work – not just in his young banking days but even when Kodak was well-established. In her biography of Eastman, Betsy Brayer notes that “up until the turn of the century, Eastman rode a bicycle to work in good weather and parked it in the basement of the Kodak Office at 343 State Street.” The ride from Soule House (the residence he and his mother lived in before he built his mansion) to Kodak State Street was a 2.6 mile ride each way.

Eastman and his bicycle ca. 1910. Eastman and his bicycle ca. 1910.

 

Eastman and some companions cycled throughout Europe several times in the 1890s. In addition to having fun with friends, Eastman used the trips to explore locations for potential Kodak branches. Eastman also bicycled through the Berkshires of Massachusetts. Eastman had an endurance I haven’t built up to yet. A close friend of Eastman's wrote him in July 1892 saying, "You must be having a very elegant time on your bicycle trip. You must be getting as strong as an ox, if you are making fifty-seven or eight miles in a day." On one of his transatlantic trips, Eastman met Albert H. Overman, creator of the Overman Wheel Company and Victor Bicycles. The two struck up a friendship that lasted over three decades. Eastman enthusiastically rode Victor Bicycles and bought them for friends and family. Eastman and Overman went in together on a hunting property in North Carolina called Oak Lodge. Eastman eventually purchased Overman’s share and vacationed there multiple times a year for the rest of his life. Eastman’s horse carriage struck two cyclists in 1899: “a small boy” on Park Avenue and an older gentleman on State Street. Eastman was quick to point out in correspondence that neither accident was his fault – they had swerved into his carriage. Eastman paid for the young boy’s bicycle wheel to be repaired. Kodak focused a great amount of advertising toward cyclists in the early days. Kodak had a line of Bicycle Kodaks. Just as cyclists today purchase mounts for their smart phones, cyclists back in the 1890s purchased cases to attach their cameras to their bikes. Many ads featured a bicycling man with the slogan “Take a Kodak with you.” Kodak encouraged photo-taking by cyclists by promoting the adventures of Thomas G. Allen Jr. and William L. Sachtleben, two American college graduates who set out to travel the world on their bicycles. Their narratives and Kodak photos were featured in The Century and later as the book Across Asia on a Bicycle.

Kodak ad from the 1890s Kodak ad from the 1890s

 

Kodak ad from the 1890s Kodak ad from the 1890s

 

Eastman remarked to a friend in 1895: “They are getting bicycles down in this country to marvelously low weights. Crouch has just bought one…that only weighs 17 lbs. You can take it up in one hand and swing it over your head…Such a reduction of weight must add very materially to the pleasure of touring.” Eastman would get a kick out of the plethora of folding bikes that are now on the market. The Legacy Collection at Eastman House has three bicycle plates from George Eastman’s bicycles. Two are manufacturer’s plates (Iver Johnson's Arms & Cycle Works of Fitchburg, MA and Pierce Cycle Co. of Angola, NY). The third is a personalized name plate the he had made. eastman_bike_plate