E. C. Stearns & Company began business as a hardware manufacturer and branched into bicycle production from 1893 through 1899 after Edward C. Stearns brought the industry to Syracuse in 1888 and transformed his father's hardware and wagon factory in Oneida, New York, to a bicycle plant.
Stearns, president and founder of E. C. Stearns Bicycle Agency, established several other manufacturing plants in Syracuse including E. C. Stearns & Company, Wholesale Bi-steam Carriage Company and Stearns Automobile Company or Stearns Steam Carriage Company.
The company motto was "ridden in every civilized country on the globe"
When the bicycle first became popular, it was natural that Edward C. Stearns should take it up "first as a sport and then as a business." After becoming one of the best riders in this "section" he decided to manufacture the new vehicles in his shop at 224 Oneida Street where he had moved the business after his father's death. He soon developed several of the "best selling models of the bicycle era. He employed "noted" riders to "race his product", few of them any better riders than he. His models became so popular they were in demand throughout the world.
At one time, the company had four plants in Syracuse and 3,500 employees. Additionally, the company had another plant in Toronto, Ontario and one in Germany.
The number of bicycle riders in Syracuse by 1890 was 10,000 and the city was a "hub of bicycle production." Among the most popular bicycles was the Yellow Fellow, manufactured by E. C. Stearns Company who employed 2,000 and produced 500 bicycles a day. Bicycles were so popular during that period that streetcar earnings declined. At that time, Stearns was the largest manufacturer of bicycles in the world.
In November 1895, the company exhibited their products at the St. John's Cathedral Fair in Alhambra, California and showed three "styles of wheels" including a Stearns Special, Stearns Racer and the third a "lady's machine." The company distributed a large number of bamboo canes, "tastefully ornamented with a bow of orange ribbon" as well as large quantities of the Yellow Fellow buttons.
In late 1896, the company advertised the Stearns Special for $125. It had narrow tread, artistic lines and weighed only 20 pounds.
During 1901, the company was manufacturing models such as the Chainless priced at $75, the Racer for $50, the Light Roadster also $50, the Roadster priced at $40 and the Regular Roadster for only $30. The authorized agent in the city for the bicycles was W. D. Andrews of 216 East Railroad Street.
By 1896, Yellow Fellow production was at an all-time high and "the smoke poured from the chimneys of the Stearns company." Carloads were shipped from Syracuse bearing huge posters that read, "Yellow Fellows, made in Syracuse," followed by the name of the dealer in some distant city.
The model was produced in one-seater, two-seater tandems, triplets and sextets.
On August 14, 1896, Eugene A. Neidert rode a Yellow Fellow up the steps of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.. His exploit found its way into the news column of almost every newspaper in the United States and the Stearns company "capitalized the stunt" in their trade paper, Yellow Fellow, which was issued weekly. Frank J. Marion, affiliated with Hollywood "motion picture" interests, was editor of the journal and G. H. E. "Go-Home-Early" Hawkins, who worked for a large soap company, was managing editor. According to the local press these trade journals "advised scorchers known to this era as speeders, on the proper way to ride wheels in the city."
High pressure advertising men of the era performed many "stunts" and "poems were recited, songs written and sung, speeches made at dinners, picnics, hometown celebrations and conventions---all advertising bicycles in general and the Yellow Fellow in particular."
The "ad men" coined slogans and influenced the fashion of the day by telling the women what well dressed "centurions" wore. The "centurions", or women riders, were told "never to wear red petticoats as they attract undo attention" and were advised instead to wear gray linen or "crash suits" with Yellow Fellow wheels, with matching hats and scarves.
Stearns always incorporated the Yellow Fellow model in all their advertising. When asked why, the advertising manager, G. H. E. Hawkins indicated that the name was "synonymous with 'Stearns' so that whenever one sees a yellow wheel his mind naturally reverts to Stearns and Yellow Fellow. Our efforts in this direction have been flatteringly successful, and there's hardly a man, woman and child on the continent knowing the difference between a bicycle and a tricycle, but instinctively recognizing any yellow bicycle as a 'Stearns'."
Stearns also published a weekly, Yellow Fellow trade paper and national weeklies as well as posters and circulars.
The company rated newspaper publicity, whether it consisted of paid space or favorable notices from events, above all other forms of advertisement in terms of effectiveness. A spokesman noted that the Journal-Examiner Yellow Fellow Relay generated "two scrap books full of valuable reading notices that were freely given." Stearns felt the relay was the greatest advertising scheme the company ever originated. The New York Journal and San Francisco Examiner, in particular, generated much publicity for the Yellow Fellow."
Because the company believed the name Stearns was used on the stage more extensively than any other bicycle, they were working on an advertising campaign in 1896 which contained the photos and testimonials of such stars as Olga Nethersole, Loie Fuller, Cora Urquhart Brown-Potter, Cissy Fitzgerald, Richard Mansfield, Robert Hilliard and John Drew, among others.
Olga Nethersole endorsed the 1896 Stearns bicycle when she wrote a letter to the company;
"Dear Sir, Will you favor me by ordering another '96 Stearns bicycle to be shipped to my London residence, Walsingham House, Piccadilly. The Stearns is the lightest and most durable wheel that I have ridden and an ideal bicycle for women. Yours very truly, Olga Nethersole."
The company also maintained billboards along the "elevated" railroad in New York City. In 1896, sheet music entitled The Yellow Fellow - Two Step, composed by Walter B. Rogers and dedicated to "the riders of the Stearns bicycle" was published by J. W. Pepper.
During early February 1897, the company was expending a "tremendous" amount of money each year on their advertising costs. Stearns was considered among the three heaviest advertisers in the business. The company, for example, paid $1,100 for "just the space" they used at the Chicago Bicycle Show and a "corresponding amount" at least at a dozen other cycle shows throughout the country. Additional costs included the electrical display, transport of goods, the construction and decoration of the trade booths, expense of a large force of assistants and it is readily seen that by the time show season was over, such a concern had "spent as much money as an ordinary concern does business in a year." The bicycle show held in Syracuse at the Alhambra Hall was "exactly the same as it appeared in Chicago, where it was conceded without a dissenting voice to be the most elegant and artistic." Stearns introduced their very latest "novelty," a Stearns tricycle "that is sure to attract a great deal of attention." The new tricycle was described as an "exceedingly light, pretty wheel and is a worthy member of the Yellow Fellow family."
The company published a magazine called Cycle Topics in which they warned riders on the practices of the road. "Don't scorch--this means you" was one suggestion, as well as "keep to the right of the road" and "turn to one side for a heavy load even if you are on the right side."
Speeding was quite a problem in the 1890s and the young riders would make it a practice to "scorch" through villages and were warned by Stearns to "ride no faster than 8 miles per hour (13 km/h) through villages where you are unfortunate with the ordinances, it will save you money." Another issue of the magazine warned readers; "Be ever ready to assist a female rider in distress on the road without the formality of an introduction."
The Yellow Fellow was a "popular trade journal" and was first published on June 10, 1893. In June 1897, the journal became a monthly and "several new and attractive features were arranged."
Some of the slogans for Stearns bicycles were;"Ride a 'Stearns' and be content."
"Where'er one turns, He finds a Stearns."
"Watch the sunlight glisten on those orange rims."
"The way to do it is to do it on a 'Stearns.'"
"A Stearns once tried, A Stearns you'll ride."
"Style - Speed - Strength."
"Rough roads made smooth."
John J. McLaughlin, on a Stearns Yellow Fellow, broke the record on December 18, 1894, of a straightaway unpaced mile in 1:21 in Columbia, Pennsylvania.
By late 1894, John S. "Johnny" Johnson rode a Stearns wheel when he made a "remarkable mile" in 1:35. In August that year Johnson had a "falling out" with Stearns when they did not like the idea of him traveling to Canada without authority and "saddling the expenses upon the firm." Appeal was taken to Chairman Raymond of the League of American Wheelmen racing board to have Johnson live up to his contract. According to the local newspaper, "Johnson will probably give Syracuse the cold shoulder hereafter. He received great advertising as a rider and was treated generously in Syracuse, but like all "pure amateurs" he is probably "out for his stuff" and will go where he can get the most money." A reporter who called at the Stearns works to learn the latest developments in the case were told that both Stearns and Maslin were enjoying themselves at their cottages on Skaneateles Lake.
During 1896, the Stearns company sponsored dozens of racing teams all over the United States, in Australia and Europe to ride the Yellow Fellow model. According to a local reporter, "Records fell right and left before the Stearns wheel" and the "famous" team of Round-the-World Yellow Fellows including Earl Kiser, C. M. Murphy and Harry Wheeler, went abroad to capture European prizes.
Local cyclist, John Wilkinson's first job was as machinist for E. C. Stearns & Company where he stayed a short three months before moving on to Stearns competitor, Syracuse Bicycle Company where he was employed for four years.
William Martin, a famous professional bicyclist and winner of the Madison Square Garden races, was hired by E. C. Stearns & Company in April 1896 to ride the Stearns bicycle in Paris, France.
Both E. E. Anderson's ride of a mile behind a locomotive in 1:03 and the Journal-Examiner Yellow Fellow Relay across the continent were popular events in 1896 that brought the Yellow Fellow much notoriety.
E. E. Anderson of St. Louis, Missouri, of "mile a minute fame," rode a Stearns bicycle during the 1897 season. According to the press, "Anderson is another professional who preferred to be mounted on a fast wheel rather than be handicapped by an unreliable mount, even though he is paid nothing for his services." Several professional riders had "signaled their intention of riding Stearns bicycles" that season including Major Taylor, John S. Johnson and Carroll B. Jack.
John S. Johnson was training in Minneapolis in May 1897 on his new Yellow Fellow racer. He wrote that he expected to follow the national circuits and "thinks he stands an equal show for the prize money with any of the 'cracks' in the business."
Earl H. Kiser, who was nicknamed the "Little Dayton Demon," raced for the Stearns Yellow Fellow team. Kiser became a two time world cycling champion and competed all across Europe in the late 1890s.
On July 28, 1896, a team of six bicycle riders who were employees of Stearns, raced the Empire State Express of the New York Central Railroad. Stearns racer, William H. Bex, led a sextuplet over the rough passageway on a sextuple-tandem between two railroad tracks "near the old baseball ground to the old stone pump house a mile away" in Geddes where the famous race was staged. The racers held their own for some distance and when they neared the pump house at Geddes, half a mile away, the sextet pulled ahead of the train by four wheels. From the train's rate of speed, it was estimated that the bicycle was going 45 miles per hour (72 km/h). The team had agreed ahead of time to finish the race at the pump house near the reservoir. It took the riders a quarter mile to slow down and stop and the $2,000 bicycle finally halted on the brink of a railroad culvert.
The outcome of the contest was used extensively by Stearns for advertising the Yellow Fellow and the event was named the Stearns Sextuplet Empire State Express Race. The members of the sextet also included Don B. Smith, William Fournier, Robert Darling, William Roth and James Carey.
A week before they had nearly been killed in a similar attempt when an unexpected Oswego Express on the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad track thundered toward them. While moving at a rapid rate the rear man looked back and saw a train approaching on a track next to the wheel and threw himself from the machine. All six riders were thrown to the express track, but succeeded in getting beyond reach of the train. Later they raced with the fast mail and it was reported they had a close race for 1.5 miles (2.4 km).
Barney Oldfield began as a bicycle racer in 1894, winning silver medals and a gold watch. At age 16, in 1894, he entered his first bicycle race, and soon officials from Dauntless bicycle factory asked him to ride for the Ohio state championship. Although Oldfield came in second in the race, it was a turning point in his life and he was hired as a parts sales representative for Stearns, where he met his future wife, Beatrice Lovetta Oatis whom he married in 1896.
By 1896, he was being paid handsomely by the Stearns bicycle factory to race on its amateur team.
The League of American Wheelmen did not approve of "paid amateurs" in bicycle racing. After they threatened Oldfield with blacklisting, he "outfoxed the league" and formed his own racing team, Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles.
Marshall "Major" Taylor, a top bicycle racer and world class athlete of the day, went to Syracuse, New York, for the 1899 season with his friend, mentor and manager, Louis "Birdie" Munger to sign a contract with Stearns. Taylor, Munger and sponsor, Harry Sager had arrived in the city to enter into negotiations with the Olive Wheel Company, however, they were able to work out a more lucrative contract with Stearns who agreed to build Taylor's bicycles using the Sager gear chainless mechanism designed by Harry Sager. The bikes only weighed about 20 pounds (9.1 kg) and had an 88-inch (2,200 mm) gear for sprinting and a 120-inch (3,000 mm) gear for longer, paced runs.
Stearns also agreed to build Taylor a "revolutionary" steam-powered pacing tandem "behind which he could attack world records and challenge the leading exponents of paced racing." Although the pacing tandem was temperamental, Taylor easily broke the world record of 1 mile (1.6 km) in 01:19 at a speed of 45.56 miles per hour (73.32 km/h) and beat his competitor, Eddie McDuffie on November 15, 1899.
During 1895, George Loher, a butcher from Oakland, California, rode a Stearns Yellow Fellow across the United States from San Francisco to New York. Loher took a northerly route which sent him north through Oregon and then across 13 states and territories where he crossed "deserts, sandy valleys and five mountain ranges."
Loher was not the first to cross the nation on bicycle, 11 years earlier another cycler from Oakland, Thomas Stevens, made the trip on a high-wheeler. Loher, however, was the first to do so with the "new pneumatic tire." He also had no brake on the bicycle and his method of stopping was "to drop a bunch of brush and sticks tied to a rope on his bike and drag it behind to slow his momentum."
Along the way he had a few minor problems when he nearly ran into a train in Oregon and in Washington he broke the front forks on his machine. In Montana he ran his front wheel into a boulder.
He also traveled through North Dakota, Wisconsin, Ohio and New York. The trip took 80 days and returned to Oakland by train.
After returning home, Loher wrote a journal about his adventures but did not publish it because "he thought it was too ordinary." In the 1960s, his granddaughter found the manuscript and had it published in the early 1970s as The Wonderful Ride.
On January 20, 1895, the company participated in the New York Cycle Show which was held in Madison Square Gardens in New York City where they displayed models of the year including a light roadster, weighing 21.5 pounds (9.8 kg) and an ordinary roadster that weighed 27 pounds (12 kg). The New York Times reported that "Their display is one of the largest and most complete at the show, and anyone is convinced after a short talk with the salesman, that the Stearns wheel is a good one."
Adjoining the Stearns exhibit was the Bidwell-Tinkham Cycle Company who displayed not only their own bicycle, the Tourist, but also the Stearns wheel, for which they were the New York agent.
The Grand Cycle Show was held in Syracuse on March 2, 1898, in the Herald Building on Warren Street. Included were the Stearns Chainless and Racer. Kapp's Orchestra performed at the show.
Edward C. Stearns continued to design important components for his bicycle line in much the same manner as he designed tools for his hardware enterprise, E. C. Stearns & Company. By May 28, 1895, he invented what he described as a "new and useful" support for bicycle saddles which was "light, yet strong and rigid" that permitted it to be adjusted forward or backward. Witnesses were Alfred Wilkinson and L. F. Weisburg.
By 1896, the company had factories in Syracuse, Toronto, Ontario and Paris, France. They also had branches located in San Francisco, Berlin, Germany, New York City and Buffalo, New York.
Frederick J. Haynes, who began his practical work experience in the machine shop of Syracuse Bicycle Company in the 1890s was the superintendent of the E. C. Stearns Bicycle Company in Toronto, Ontario in 1899 for one year. He later served as general manager of the Lake Shore Engine Works in Marquette, Michigan and by 1904 he was assistant engineer and later served as plant manager at H. H. Franklin Manufacturing Company in Syracuse.
The Stearns Bicycle Agency, located at 315 Warren Street in the Herald Building was the sales agency for the E. C. Stearns & Company bicycles and components. By December 1898, the agency advertised their bicycle cleaning and storage services for $1 during the winter months. They also offered "repairs at cost" such as new wood rims for $1.20 and tire "bargains" starting at $3.25.
During late December 1898, the agency touted the 1899 Stearns model as well as bicycles for children, cyclometers, pumps, bells, saddles and book holders and the fact they were "open evenings" was always included in the advertisements.
In January 1899, the company advertised a "10 Day Bargain" for bicycle riders to change the customers "rat-trap pedals" to rubber for 15 cents. By July that year they were selling "Stearns samples" which were the salesmen's samples which were used for display purposes that season at a greatly reduced price of $32.50 as opposed to the $50.00 normal price that year. Racers and Specials were going for $60.00 and Cushion Frames were $65.00.
By September 1899, gas lamps were advertised at a price ranging from $1.00 to $3.00. The Stearns Model E was going for $25.00, "cash" and tires cost $1.50 and upwards. By September 1900, "tire bells" that were the kind that ring "loud and rapid and those who have used them say they are the only kind" were selling for 25 cents.
By 1896, the bicycle industry reached a "bitterly" competitive crisis. The market was clearly flooded by too many manufacturers. Within three years time, in 1900, the blow fell. In an attempt to control supply and limit competition, 42 manufacturers (later over 75 companies) formed the American Bicycle Company (A.B.C.), known familiarly as "the trust." The concern bought up one company after another and eventually had formed into a monopoly. Even strong, profitable companies such as Stearns sold out their rights to the new conglomerate.
A.B.C. soon announced plans to open a branch plant in Canada called the National Cycle Company located in Hamilton, Ontario. Some of the other companies that merged in 1900 were E. C. Stearns Company of Toronto, Ontario, Evans & Dodge Bicycle Company of Windsor, Ontario and The Dodge Brothers.
By June 1900, the American Bicycle Company demanded that company founder, Edward C. Stearns, Herbert E. Maslin and Mrs. Avis Van Wagenen, of Syracuse, execute an agreement not to engage in the manufacture of bicycles in competition with A.B.C., who claimed they made an agreement with the Stearns company when their factory was sold to the combination. A.B.C. felt that Stearns was in violation of their contract because the Bretz Manufacturing Company, in which the parties were alleged to be interested, was notified to cease manufacture of both the Regal and Holland and "other machines" which closely resemble the Stearns and Barnes bicycles made by A.B.C. Both the Frontenac Cycle Company and Stearns Cycle Agency of Syracuse were warned against manufacture and sale of the machines, however, E. C. Stearns denied he was connected with the manufacture of bicycles and the Bretz Company also claimed their bicycles were different from the Stearns and Barnes bicycles.
A charge of conspiracy was filed when A.B.C. claimed its business had been damaged and asked for an injunction preventing the use of words Stearns, Yellow Fellow and Original Stearns Plant. A bill of complaint in the United States Court was served against the Stearns Bicycle Agency, Edward C. Stearns, individually and as a director, Herbert E. Maslin, individually and as president and director, and William A. Doubleday, as treasurer and director in which $200,000 damages were demanded. The suit was claimed to be the result of the manufacture and sale of the Regal bicycle in Syracuse.
Both Stearns and Maslin were in the employ of A.B.C., known as the "trust," when they purportedly entered into a conspiracy; part of which was to purchase through Doubleday the capital stock of the Stearns Bicycle Agency from A.B.C., which bought it when they acquired the interests of E. C. Stearns & Company. The agency was formed for retail business and at the time Edward C. Stearns was then local manager of the A.B.C. at $12,000 a year salary. The pair leased the old Stearns factory and A.B.C. claimed they entered into the business of manufacture of bicycles in competition with A.B.C. instead of the purposes represented when they leased the building.
It was also claimed that Stearns, Maslin and Doubleday then organized as W. A. Doubleday & Co., a corporation, and it was alleged that this company assumed the "real business" of the Stearns Bicycle Agency. It was further claimed that the defendants sent circulars signed with the name Stearns Bicycle Agency with H. A. Maslin as president to the agents of A.B.C. and to the agents for the old Stearns wheels. A.B.C. felt that the circulars represented the agency as selling the "Stearns wheels" and "Yellow Fellows" which turned out to be the Regal wheel.
While the trust was to discontinue making the Stearns bicycle, instead, it was said that the trust had more agents selling the wheel than ever before and at the same time had twice as many working men engaged in the manufacture.
The Regal model was said to be a pattern close to the Stearns wheel, having a similar name, the same colored enamel in yellow and olive and striping, the same style of joints and frame, and in fact, "being a Chinese copy." It also had a nameplate that said The Stearns Bicycle Agency. A.B.C. demanded that the men should be prevented from "stating to the trade" that the wheels were made in the original Stearns factory and by the old Stearns workmen. Also, from selling bicycles or bicycle accessories which are substantially similar.
It was also asked that Stearns and Maslin provide a full account of profits derived from the sale of the bicycles and the alleged infringement of rights. The injunction was served by Judge Coxe at Utica, New York.
Stearns and Maslin both denied that either was in any way engaged in the bicycle business. The injunction was argued on June 19, 1898 and was partially granted and partially denied. Both sides claimed a partial victory. Attorneys Edward Nottingham, William Nottingham and Alfred Wilkinson represented Stearns and Maslin while Hey & Parson appeared for A.B.C. The injunction was denied except as to the use of the name Stearns, Yellow Fellow and the like on any wheel colored yellow or partly yellow. Additionally, the Stearns Bicycle Agency could continue to sell the Regal in the variety of colors, including yellow, as long as they did not add the Stearns name.
By December 1900, the W. A. Doubleday Company were successors to the Stearns Bicycle Agency and were located on South Warren Street in Syracuse. The Yellow Fellow was still sold as late as May 1913 under the moniker the "old reliable Stearns" at local dealer Spalding & Company at 109 West Jefferson Street.