Going for gold: cycling extravagance in the USA

by CHARLES MEINERT with contributions from JIM McGURN.

“If  you're going to make money - You've got to look like money”  That was the motto of Diamond Jim Brady, the most flamboyant figure of the American cycling scene during the bicycle craze of the mid 1890s.

Brady was essentially a salesman. At the end of the 1870s he had fitted himself out in fine clothes, acquired a gold watch, bought a $90 diamond ring, and hit the road to sell materials to the railway companies.

Within ten years, he was a very rich man. He certainly acted the part, providing lavish hospitality and gifts to important customers and wearing gold and diamonds in an era that held gems, particularly diamonds, in high regard.

Diamond Jim was quick to cotton on to a new opportunity for ostentation. A cycle boom affected the upper classes of the United States in the mid-1890s. New York City's ‘Four Hundred', the self-defining social elite, formed the Michaux  Cycle Club in 1895, with headquarters on upper Broadway. The club's social evenings and gymkhana (a type of motorsport) were occasions for elaborate set pieces. In the ‘Balaclava Mele', for example, four male cyclists wearing fencing masks used canes to strike at plumes fixed to each other's headgear. For the ladies there was serpentining down fixed lines of bowling pins and both sexes took part in cycling versions of dances such as the ‘Virginia Reel ‘. There were other elite clubs in New York City, and high society took their bicycles to their mansions in Newport for the Summer Season. William K. Vanderbilt provided bicycles for guests who had formerly been content with horses.

Diamond Jim  took to this fashionable pursuit with his customary flair. Both he and his equally attention-riveting girlfriend, Lillian Russell, the reigning queen of  American entertainers, were putting on weight.  This was thanks to their love of the good life, so cycling also provided some exercise.

Jim first ordered an exquisitely finished bicycle from Columbia, especially designed for his ample figure and equipped with a pneumatic saddle for comfort. He soon acquired the services of a former circus bicycle rider, Dick Barton as his full time cycling advisor.

Barton was instructed to order a dozen machines with solid gold frames, silver spokes and possibly some jewels. The stunned folk at Columbia had to confess that they could not make a solid gold bicycle to support big Jim or other adults. Instead, they suggested that steel machines could be gold plated. So Jim instructed an electro-plating firm to construct a tank that would hold three bicycles at a time. Dick Barton disassembled the machines every two weeks during the cycling season and took them back to have the plating renovated. So Diamond Jim never rode on a bicycle that did not look brand new.

Imagine a bike heavily gold plated with tiny chip diamonds studding the frame.  Diamond Jim bought one for Lilian Russell. The handle bars of mother of pearl with her monogram in diamonds and emeralds. Tiny diamonds, sapphires, rubies and emeralds were set into the hubs and spokes so they glistened and twinkled in the sun. The bike was kept in a plush lined morocco leather travelling bag.

Whilst cycling was fashionable Diamond Jim and his friends would ride favourite routes in New York. They might cross the Brooklyn Bridge and cycle to the beach at Coney Island, take to the good flat roads in New Jersey that bordered the Hudson River or go through Central Park and then follow Riverside Drive to dine at one of the famous meeting places for cyclists, Dorlando's Restaurant.

It was only to be expected that Jim would eventually abandon the bicycle for the motor car. And that he would create a sensation in the autumn of 1894 by driving one of the first electric cars in New York. Instead of diamonds, his new vehicle had many interior lights to glisten at night to draw attention Diamond Jim and Lillian Russell as they drove through the city.