The Pope Manufacturing Company was incorporated in March 1877 in Connecticut. The incorporation documents stated the company's intended business activities to:
"...make, manufacture and sell and licence to others to make, manufacture and sell air pistols and guns, darning machines, amateur lathes, cigarette rollers and other patented articles and to own, sell and
deal in patents and patent rights for the manufacture thereof."
Albert Pope started advertising imported English bicycles for sale in March 1878. In May 1878, he met with George Fairfield, president of Weed Sewing Machine Company. Albert Pope was inquiring about manufacturing his own brand of bicycles, proposing a contract with Weed to build fifty bicycles at its plant in Hartford, Connecticut, on behalf of Pope Manufacturing. Pope had ridden an imported Excelsior Duplex model penny farthing to the meeting, which Fairfield inspected. At that time, sewing machines were selling poorly, so Fairfield accepted the contract.
In September 1878, Weed Sewing Machine Company built the last of the fifty bikes under the first contract. Albert Pope chose the brand name Columbia for the first high-wheelers "produced" by Pope Manufacturing. These first machines, copied from the Excelsior Duplex model, were made from seventy-seven parts that were made in-house, and only the rubber tires purchased from a supplier. Pope Manufacturing sold all its bicycles from the first production run. In 1879, production and sales were around 1,000, the last year of the Excelsior Duplex copies.
Redesigning the "Ordinaries"
In 1880, George Fairfield introduced design changes and proposed two ordinary Columbia models. The Standard Columbia with a forty-eight inch wheel was introduced in 1880 priced at $87.50. The Special Columbia offered "a closed Stanley-style head," a "built-in" ball-bearing assembly, and full nickel-plating for $132.50.
After the introduction of the high wheeler, Pope bought Pierre Lallement's original patent for the bicycle, and aggressively bought all other bicycle patents he could find, amassing a fortune by restricting the types of bicycles other American manufacturers could make and charging them royalties. He used the latest technologies in his bicycles—inventions such as ball bearings in all moving parts, and hollow steel tubes for the frame, and he spent a great deal of money promoting bicycle clubs, journals, and races.
Hartford Cycle Company
At a time when Pope charged $125 for a Columbia, Overman Wheel Company was marketing a bicycle for wage workers, who might earn $1 per day. Instead of reducing cost and price on the Columbias, Pope decided to produce a separate line to compete with Overman. Around 1890, Pope started another manufacturer, Hartford Cycle Company in order to create a new line with a mid-price niche. He installed his cousin George to run the plant. He transferred David J. Post from Weed to serve as secretary for Hartford. MIT-graduate Harry Pope, Albert's nephew, was Hartford's superintendent. Pope Manufacturing subsumed Hartford Cycle Company in 1895.
"Ordinaries" had used a heavy pipe, but the "safeties" used twenty-seven feet of tubing: solid round bar would weigh down the machine. Almost all the Pope manufacturing facilities were located in Hartford in an area previously known for gun-making. Like bicycles, rifle barrels required thin, high-strength tubes, so the skills and processes of rifle manufacturing were related to the manufacturing of steel tubing for safety bicycles. Importing tubes cost an American manufacturer a forty-five percent import tariff, thus creating a financial incentive for domestic production. The sudden popularity of safety bicycles in the United States created a shortage of tubing supply for manufacturers, both in Europe and the United States. Albert Pope had invested in Shelby Steel Tubing, even while building two steel tubing factories in Hartford, owned by Pope Manufacturing. One was an experimental facility, and the other for commercial production.
The Soltis Collection's restored 1941 24" and unrestored 1953 26" Columbia Bicycles.
Vigorous testing for Army proving — shown a Ford GP, 1941.
Willys MA jeep at the Desert Training Center, Indio, California, June 1942.