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HOLLENBECK: A penny and a farthing can be much more than a couple of coins

September 15, 2011

I love learning.
That may sound trite, but it’s true.
Conversely, I hate to appear dumb, but I made a really dumb mistake this week, and of course my mistakes are there for thousands to see immediately and then become part of local recorded history forever and ever.
That’s a heavy pill to swallow at times, but it’s been my life for 40 years, so I guess I’m getting used to it.
The up side of that is that I learned something from my recent faux pas.
I knew when I saw the printed picture I had taken of Art Rockwell in the Saline County Fair Parade that I had misidentified the contraption he was riding.
When I snapped the shot, what I saw was Art riding on a great big single-wheeled bike. That’s what I saw; it’s just not what it was.
As I looked at the photo on the Courier page, I knew it was an oops! moment for me.
Not only was there the big wheel in front of this bike, a tiny little wheel was there also.
Obviously, this wasn’t a unicycle, but that’s what I thought I had seen and that’s what I wrongly named it.
The Saline Courier staff is blessed to include Pat Stuckey, who knows from a little to a lot about nearly everything.
She informed me that Art had been riding what’s known as a penny-farthing.
Yes, I had seen them in movies and TV shows and such, but I was totally unfamiliar with the name.
(I did know what a farthingale was — I study costumes in movies and such — but a penny-farthing? This was new to me.)
That sent me to the Internet research department, which revealed that the bike gets its name from from the British penny and farthing coins, one much larger than the other, so that the side view of the bike resembles a penny leading a farthing.
For most of their reign, these were simply known as bicycles. In the late 1890s, the retronym “ordinary” began to be used, to distinguish them from the emerging safety bicycles, and this term or hi-wheel (and variants) is preferred by many modern enthusiasts.
It’s also known as “the “high-wheel bicycle” and sometimes just the “high bicycle.”An important and unfortunate attribute of the penny-farthing is that the rider sits high and nearly over the front axle. When the wheel strikes rocks and ruts, or under hard braking, the rider can be pitched forward off the bicycle head-first, called “taking a header” or simply “a header.”
Headers were relatively common, and a significant hazard: Riders sometimes died from headers. Riders coasting down hills often took their feet off the pedals and put them over the tops of the handlebars, so they would be pitched off feet-first instead of head-first.
Makers developed “moustache” handlebars, allowing the rider’s knees to clear them. “Whatton” handlebars wrapped around behind the legs and ultimately the position of big and small wheel was reversed. This prevented headers, but left the danger of being thrown backwards when riding uphill. Other attempts included moving the seat rearward and driving the wheel by levers or treadles, or gears, or by chain. Another option was to move the seat well back.
Whatever might have been done, I think these look scary.
I don’t know where Art got the one he rode in the parade, but he appeared to be having a great time.
I did well in my childhood to learn to ride a regular bicycle. I can’t imagine trying something like this.
When I finally gave up my training wheels — with a great deal of anguish — my cousin Paula taught me to ride, but she found the experience daunting. Whenever I would discover she had let go and I was on my own, I’d stop pedaling and over I’d go.
She’d tell me I was riding just fine, but my confidence level would drop to zero when I became a solo act.
I also suffered a few crashes into a tree located between my family’s house and my Aunt Lena’s. I think the tree probably suffered more than I did, but it was my crutch.
Thank goodness Paula didn’t try to teach me to ride on one of those big-wheeled things. It would have been disastrous.
Maybe with enough practice I could learn to spend a penny and a farthing, but I don’t think riding anything called that would have been in the cards for me.
But I do know now that it’s not a unicycle. I’m still learning.

Lynda Hollenbeck is associate editor of The Saline Courier.
lyndahol@yahoo.com

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