Velocipede used by Buster Keaton in the film Our Hospitality
Velocipede was used by Buster Keaton in his 1923 film Our Hospitality. Also known as a pedestrian curricle, gentleman’s hobby horse, or swift walker, this proto-bicycle became popular around 1818 when British cartwright Denis Johnson began manufacturing an improved version that gained a following among wealthy young men. In the United States, a fad for the device in the 1820s inspired constant innovation and helped lay the groundwork for the modern bicycle industry.
This velocipede was made a hundred years later as a replica for Buster Keaton to use in Our Hospitality, a silent comedy film he starred in and directed. The film, loosely based on the legendary Hatfield & McCoy family feud, tells the story of Willie McKay (Keaton), who returns to his Southern birthplace after years away to claim his father’s estate.
Despite his ignorance, McKay becomes embroiled in a long-running feud with the Canfield family, whose patriarch and sons attempt to kill him at every turn. Despite the threat of violence, Willie falls in love with daughter Virginia Canfield, and their last-minute marriage brings the families together at last. Keaton rode this velocipede in his first scene in the film, in which Willie McKay learns of his inheritance. Keaton loved historical transportation technology and frequently featured trains, carriages, automobiles, and other vehicles prominently in his films.
His interest in transportation history was so well-known that Smithsonian curators contacted him in 1924 to request this replica velocipede to help illustrate the history of bicycle technology!The velocipede is constructed with a wooden bar, 55 inches long and curved downward slightly in the center, suspended by iron braces over the rear wheel and a vertical iron fork over the front wheel. The fork is steered by means of a curved tongue attached to its bottom. A wooden armrest for the rider is mounted upon iron braces at the front of the bar and a felt saddle is carried on the center of the bar. Each wheel is 30 inches in diameter and contains eight spokes.
The spokes, hubs, and felloes are of wood, with the spokes staggered in the hubs, and narrow iron tires are fitted to the felloes. According to biographer Rudi Blesh, Keaton once visited the Smithsonian to see his velocipede on display. He quoted Keaton recalling “I was playing Washington in Three Men and a Horse. I said, ‘Eleanor, I’ve got something to show you.’ We went to the Smithsonian, and there it was — the Gentleman’s Hobbyhorse, a replica of the first bicycle ever made. There hadn’t been one left in existence, so we built it from an old print.”OBJECT NAME Velocipede hobby horses pedestrian curricle swift walker dandy horse DATE MADE 1923 PLACE MADE United States: California, Los Angeles