Self-made cycles in the 19th and early 20th century Estonia

Tambet Muide


A boy with a self-made bicycle in Tarvastu, Estonia in 1912. Photo by Johannes Pääsuke. Source

In an 1894 short story the author of the piece refers to the readers familiarity with the cycle by saying that “Some younger ones, handymen, as all Estonians are, who can make the horns of the devil with an axe and a knife if need be, might have a self-made wooden or metal one at home”. The fact that some people were making their own cycles had also been noticed by the Tartu cyclists’ club and in August 1893 they declared that an upcoming cycle race will among others also contain a “peasant race on self-made cycles” and that the winners of the race and the owner of the best cycle will also receive monetary prizes. The local Estonian newspaper “Postimees” praised the club’s initiative, hoping that self-made cycles would make them cheaper and more available and thereby more beneficial as an utilitarian vehicle. The article claimed that such cycles were often seen around the city of Viljandi and were apparently also “not missing” around Tartu. Another such race took place a year later and a third one in 1895 in the city of Pärnu.

At least two such bicycles have survived and are being preserved in museums (see here and here). Similar bicycles can also be found in Russian museums (see for example here and here) and the phenomenon has been studied in the Finnish context by Tiina Männistö-Funk. Männistö-Funk claims that the aim of building such cycles was not so much a cheap substitution of an utilitarian vehicle, but instead the possibility of a craftsman to prove and show off his skills.

It seems that there was a relatively widespread practice of making cycles at home in around the turn of the 19th and the 20th century among the rural populations of at least Estonia, Finland and Russia, but very likely more widely. It is also noteworthy that in Estonia the practice of making homemade bi- or tricycles for children (or, in some cases, by children) survived until the middle of the 20th century when factory made children’s cycles became more available and affordable.


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