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On Sunday, June 20, 1897, Queen Victoria, celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. A week later, this ad from the Detroit Free Press pairs the triumph of the Queen with the triumph of the popular bicycle, the Monarch. This bike was a product of the Chicago-based Monarch Cycle Manufacturing Company. Ohio native John William Kiser and his partner, Chandler Robbins, founded the company in 1892. Kiser, who had moved to Chicago to sell sewing machines, was Monarch’s president and major stockholder. This “light, strong, speedy and handsome” bicycle cost between $40 and $100 in 1896. The company’s advertising budget was about $125,000, and the product was marketed to the entire family, particularly women. The 1897 Queen Victoria ad is interesting in that the Grinnell Brothers were the Detroit agents for the Monarch. I equate Grinnell with pianos, not bikes.
From Sewing Machines to Bicycles
Like Kiser, Ira Grinnell began his sales career by selling sewing machines, first in Adrian, Michigan, and then in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti (c. 1865-1879). Along with his brothers, Clayton and Herbert, Ira entered the Detroit sewing machine market in 1882. The Grinnell Brothers opened a store at 218 Woodward Avenue and their primary sales product was the White Sewing Machine. The brothers diversified by also selling pianos and organs. Herbert retired from the business c. 1886. Pianos and organs edged out sewing machines by 1887.
Ira and Clayton Grinnell could not ignore the lucrative bicycle industry. It was a multi-million dollar enterprise supported by wheelmen groups that offered weekly outings, conventions and sporting events. Detroiters were early enthusiasts; the Detroit Bicycle Club was formed in 1879. The club merged with the Star and Meteor Bicycle Clubs to become the Detroit Wheelmen Club (1890). This club was a “male only organization.” With the 1890s marketing blitz to women came the Unique Cycling Club in Detroit (1893)—a group for women cyclists. As bicycles became more affordable, more Detroiters bought them. Road improvement in the city encouraged their use. Newspapers like The Detroit Free Press detailed cycling news on a daily basis — just as they did with baseball.
From Bicycles to Pianos
Grinnell Bros. became a distributor of bicycles c. 1895-1896. By 1901, however, bicycles were no longer mentioned as a Grinnell product in the Detroit City Directory. Perhaps Ira and Clayton were again influenced by John William Kiser. Kiser sold his interest in Monarch to the American Bicycle Company in 1899. Sources attributed this action to his view that the automobile would soon succeed the bicycle in popularity and so he “conserved his resources at the outset.” The Grinnell brothers conserved their resources and became “Michigan’s Leading Music House”.
Grinnell Bros. sold pianos on “easy terms” or rented them at low rates. They offered piano repair, refinishing and tuning. Other musical instruments available to consumers included the organ, guitars, mandolins, and banjos. Sheet music became a store staple. The company enticed the public into music by giving free recitals every afternoon and Saturday evenings. By 1911, Grinnell Bros. was manufacturing its own piano with factories in Detroit and Windsor Ontario. For more on Grinnell Brothers, see Grinnell Brothers article on historicdetroit.org.
Detroit Free Press, June 27, 1897.
“Detroit Wheelman: Fundraising to Build a Clubhouse” (on m-bike.org)
Detroit City Directories, 1882-1915.
The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, 1921. (Google E-book)
The Cyclopaedia of American Biography, 1918 (Wikisource)
The City of Detroit, Michigan, 1701-1922, Volume 3 (Google E-Book)
Explore Michigan with Pedal Power
A new Michigan Historical Museum mini-exhibit features historic bicycles, along with select historic cycling images from the Archives Michigan. It will be on display at the Museum through August 11, 2014. For more information, click Explore Michigan with Pedal Power (bicycle mini-exhibit).