A year or so ago Oscar Mulder of My Dutch Bike in San Francisco commented that he’d periodically heard from his family that his great grandfather had a bicycle shop in Amsterdam and was the “inventor of the bakfiets”. Perhaps this was never a particularly notable factoid until Oscar and his wife Soraya began a shop dedicated to supplying bakfietsen and other Dutch bikes last year.
Needless to say I’m always skeptical about anybody who’s supposedly the inventor of anything as straightforward as a bicycle with a box. But also being fascinated by the history of such things, and bikes in particular, I was also very curious to learn more. Was he known for developing a particular style of transport bike, or a special bakfiets for a particular purpose much as Maarten van Andel is much more recently the “spiritual godfather” of the 2-wheeled family bakfiets? Such stories often get twisted, misunderstood and mistranslated as they get passed through generations and languages so such an explanation seemed fairly plausible.
I forgot about the incident until Oscar sent me a note with a number of scans of photos he’d received from his mother (who still lives in Holland). None of the photos are dated but a little archive research as well as some technical features of the bikes seems to puts most of them in the 1910-1915 range. Making the task a little easier is the fact that the shop was in the Jordaan district just a few blocks from both my home and WorkCycles Lijnbaansgracht location where my office is. Much of the Jordaan looks much like it did 100 or actually even 250 years ago… aside from the cars (yes, even here there are some, though mostly just parked), some rather tasteless new buildings from the 1960’s and 70’s, and a few of the bigger canals that were filled in.
Concerning the photos and archive info we first see that great grandpa did indeed have a bike shop at Rozengracht 49 (and maybe also 40 though that’s disputable). It was called “Bergreijer” which is a play on words. Bergmeijer was the family name but “rij” is the first person form of “ride” or “drive” and “berg” also happens to mean “mountain” so in a punny sort of way it means “mountain rider”. The Dutch, incidentally, have a thing for funny names. Even when other countries were busy with dead-serious names and advertising the Dutch were naming companies with puns and other humorous approaches. It’s a history that goes back at least to when Napoleon became ruler of the region in 1810 and forced everybody to take on a family name which wasn’t at all universal at that time. Either out of spite for their ruler or figuring the names would disappear along with the ruler many people cose silly names. I actually know people who’s names directly translate to “Fountain pen”, “Short knees” and “Born naked”… seven generations later. Napoleon’s bones must be laughing in his grave.
This week Herbert Kuner of the excellent rijwiel.net website sent a couple emails to Oscar chock full of additional information. Kuner found a Bergreijer advertisement in a 1919 trade magazine listing also a separate factory at Laurierstraat 134-142. This is around the corner from the Rozengracht 49 and presumably the factory location was just for production since I don’t think the Laurierstraat was ever a street for retail shops. There are still a number of light industrial outfits there, for example our offset printing firm a few doors down from where Bergreijer stood. This location is also not listed in the 1915 phone book, which inexplicably we both found digitized on the Internet.
Another picture, though shows yet another bike shop called J. Cruiming right next to Bergreijer in the Rozengracht. Cruiming apparently also called themselves a bicycle factory and in fact a sign notes that their shop was not open to the public. This combination of retailer and fabricator is not so strange; many bike shops in this period made their own frames and other parts. I was able to find the same buildings in Google Street View. The two buildings in the right of the photo are essentially unchanged but the facades of numbers 49 (Bergreijer) and 51 (Cruimer) have unfortunately been changed.
The photos include a number of bikes, most of them fairly standard models for this period. Inside the shop are two rows of bikes, many of them with rod-operated rim brakes and none with lights fitted. A carbide lamp fitted to the bracket at the top of the headset was the standard nighttime solution then though none are visible here. Barely visible in the lower right corner seems to be a child sized bike.
There’s a gentleman in uniform, I’m guessing police though I suppose it could also be military or some other official function in which case he was very happy that the Netherlands remained neutral in WWI. His bike has a front fender that ends behind the fork crown as was the practice then. It’s a fixed gear since I see no sign of either hand brakes or even a reaction arm for a coaster brake. The chainring is a work of art and we can see it since none of the bikes in the photos have any kind of chain covers. Apparently the enclosed chain case became a defining feature of the Dutch bike later on.
Here’s a rather dashing fellow looking ready for the start of the next Portland Tweed Ride or other costume themed bicycle gathering. I’m guessing he’s physically challenged since his stylish tricycle is hand driven through a very simple pair of levers that also serve to steer the machine. It looks like it would ride fine in a fairly straight line but sharp turns could be difficult, especially for somebody who’s partially paralyzed… or maybe that’s not really the purpose of this trike. There aren’t many streets this wide bordering large rivers in Amsterdam so I’ll venture a guess that this photo was taken on the west side of the Amstel river.
***Correction: A sharp-eyed, bike loving friend of Herb Kuner in Amsterdam points out that the above and below pictures look like they were taken along the Nassaukade. Silly me! That’s right around the corner from my home and I didn’t recognize it. Of course it is about 100 years later, but still… This morning I looked more carefully while riding Pascal to his daycare center and sure enough I found a spot where the trees (aside from being much thicker) and buildings match the above photo.
This is our first bakfiets of the bunch, and it’s a remarkably ornate one. Check out that laquered box, the beautiful ironwork that seems to support both the loooong leaf springs and the handlebar, and the carbide lamps missing from the bikes in the shop above. The bike almost looks like more of a showpiece than a utility vehicle but who knows what its function was: selling cakes or household goods perhaps? Whatever it carried wasn’t heavy given the light-duty leaf springs. Though this is a very old bakfiets I’ve seen many pictures of similarly old bakfietsen from England and the Netherlands. Nope, this is not the bakfiets Mr. Bergmeijer invented.
Now, THESE last two are the bikes in question. They’re vaguely “Long John” type bikes from at least 20 years before anybody called them “Long John”. Actually they differ from Long Johns and all of the more modern variations in that the frame also runs above the load carrier along with the steering mechanism. On Long Johns, van Andel’s Bakfiets.nl Cargobike and the legions of bicycles these two have inspired the front wheel is steered via a rod linkage below the load carrier. The two photos show two different versions o the Bergreijer transportfiets. The photo with the delivery boy is probably an earlier model or prototype with no steering linkage; the handlebar has simply been extended back to reach the rider. The other bike with “G. Goes, Hemonystraat 18” (an address in Amsterdam) has a longer box and is steered via a rather complex system of bevel gears on a shaft. They seem to have gone from the simplest system possible to the most complicated… or maybe the other way around. The bike is clearly marked “Bergreijer” and “Model D” along the top tube.
I have seen a few other bikes that looked like these. One of them I almost purchased a few years ago but the owner decided not to sell it after all. This bike with its much more robust construction and dynamo lighting is much more recent, possibly from the 1930’s. The owner told me it was a Maxwell, a very well regarded Amsterdam builder of transport bikes, quite a few of whose big trikes still can still be on the streets. Another very similar (but still different) bike is displayed at a bike repair shop near Amsterdam Central Station.
Looking more recent than the Bergreijer bikes but older than these two are these slick-looking Veeno’s shown on rijwiel.net. It is worth noting that ALL of the bikes described here are older than the 1938 I’ve seen proposed as the beginning of the Danish Long Johns, though I imagine somebody, somewhere in Denmark was also experimenting with long wheelbase transport bikes before then. This repeating of history and reinventing of wheels I discussed earlier in “What’s really new in the bicycle world?”.
So did the Bergmeijer brothers invent this type of bike? It’s possible and their “Long Johns” are the oldest I’ve seen yet. However I’m only a dabbler in antique bikes and this was a time of incredible innovation and experimentation with bicycles (and cars, motorcycles and trucks too). There were several thousand little bike companies throughout the country so quite likely somebody else was also working on such bikes as well. Some day somebody else’s grandmother might pull a few worn photos of even older examples from a shoe box. For now though, I think it’s safe to say we’re at least approaching the beginnings of the Long John type bike.
Does anybody have any more good clues to help fill in the puzzle?