Cycling has fascinated people for over 100 years, and Lance Armstrong helped transform the public's idea of the sport from something that was just a hobby into a serious competition. Despite this 21st century acclaim, cycling has been a beloved activity for a long time, and passionate cyclists and collectors alike love hunting down these beautiful vintage bicycle posters from the outdoor activities' hey-day.
Cycling Revolutionizes the Industrial World
Cycling grew incredibly popular in the western world towards the end of the 20th century. For both rural and municipal communities, bicycles democratized transportation and allowed them to move more freely about their immediate region. This freedom drastically changed everyday life for people in the late-19th century, and so it's only expected that competing cycling companies, famous cyclists, and competition advertisements would pop up.
First printed during this cycling boom, bicycle posters were printed in many different countries including England, Japan, Russia, the United States, and France. Yet, as was common during this burgeoning graphic arts movement, few artists concentrated solely on bicycle art. Some of the most notable vintage poster artists who created posters using this theme include Leonetto Cappiello, Jean de Paleologue (P.A.L.) and Jules Chéret, though unknown artists created many great posters as well. You can find posters from a number of illustrators from the period.
Antique and Vintage Bicycle Poster Characteristics
As with most posters from this Golden Age of Posters, original bicycle posters vary greatly in size, shape, and design. They can be horizontal or vertical and can range from 24-40 inches wide and 20-102 inches tall. Of course, the most common sized posters are mid-sized, whereas full-sized prints (what you might think of as a movie poster) in good condition are more valuable than those of the same quality and in smaller sizes.
In addition to basic characteristics like condition and size, collectors are quite taken with these posters' designs. Most commonly, cycling posters were printed under the tenets of the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements that were popular between the 1880s-1930s. It's pretty easy to identify these posters by age because of their distinctive stylistic elements. For instance, Art Nouveau posters usually feature very wiggly, bubbled titles and saturated color schemes à la Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Similarly, Art Deco posters usually feature geometric shapes, sharp lines, and bold text.
By the time that the Art Deco movement had passed, cycling wasn't as novel as it once was, and automobiles took their place in the public consciousness. Thus, car posters became all the rage while cycling posters fell to the wayside.
Popular Themes Illustrated in Historic Cycling Posters
When collecting cycling posters, there are a few specific categories that these illustrations tend to fall into. Collectors vary on whether they like to amass their collections based on these categories or through other organizational systems like by brand, art movement, size, and so on.
Liberation for Women
A major, and really cool, theme that was substantially present in vintage cycling posters was that of liberation for women. Though this wasn't verging on feminist ideologies, it did acknowledge how the bicycle opened a woman's life to have fewer boundaries and more independence. Women could visit friends, attend to their shopping, and travel for employment on their own, and they didn't need to be wealthy enough to afford the new automobiles making their way to the social elite.
For example, one poster from 1899 depicts a tall mythic woman bearing a Viking's outfit, standing beside a bicycle and just above her head is the bold word 'Liberator.' Undoubtedly, images like this encouraged women to purchase bicycles and explore their newfound freedoms.
Another specific theme illustrated in these posters is the many different bicycle brands out there at the time. During the late 1800s, an explosion in poster advertising coincided with the attempts of bicycle manufacturers to promote their brand to the public. One of the most pervasive images from that time is the Cycles Gladiator poster that depicts a nude woman with long, flowing red hair, gliding through the night sky with her Gladiator bicycle. This Art Nouveau print was so popular, in fact, that an 1895 lithograph of it sold in 2018 for a whopping $48,000.
Famous Cyclists and Competitions
Of course, cycling competitions coincided with this bipedal boom, meaning that cycling posters began reflecting the celebrity culture surrounding this newfound sport. Champions like Jules DuBois and G. Poulan were featured astride their chosen cycles, enticing the viewer to be like them; purchase a cycle and become a successful, world-renowned sports icon.
Tips for Collecting Genuine Cycling Posters
Like all vintage collectibles, collecting bicycle posters takes a fair amount of research. You must be able to tell the difference between an original and a reprint, as it's the difference between hundreds and thousands of dollars.
Some collectors are very happy just accumulating quality reproductions. Due to the surge in demand and decline in availability of original bicycle posters, reproductions have become a viable alternative for many collectors. For $100 to $300, collectors can purchase a quality reprint made by the same lithography process as the originals.
However, a note of caution from many collectors is purchasing posters advertised using the word "vintage." Some sellers use vintage as a description of the poster's style, and not its age, which can be confusing to collectors who don't know what they're looking for. If you're just looking for an inexpensive "vintage" style bicycle poster to hang on your wall, you can usually purchase them for $10 to $50.
To tell the difference, collectors should look for signs of wear. Original posters are almost never in perfect condition. That's not to say there are not any in good condition, but original posters were printed on very thin, newsprint-like paper. Some preserved by early collectors can be in very good shape, but look for small creases and tears. Slightly faded color can also be an indication of an original print.
How Much Do Original Posters Cost?
Unfortunately, original lithographs and prints of these 100+ year old cycling posters are going to cost you around $1,000-$3,000, on average. Of course, you can absolutely find prints that aren't in good condition, are smaller, or reprints (but still very old) for less money. However, the ones that collectors actually love tend to be worth thousands of dollars. This is mostly due to the fact that these posters come from the height of poster art in the western world, and people are willing to pay a lot of money for the originals:
Take these prints that recently came to auction, for example:
- Jean de Paleologue "Cycles Liberator" poster circa 1900 - Listed for $2,200
- French De Dion Bouton poster circa 1925 - Listed for $2,500
- Raleigh Bicycles Meilleures Bicyclettes poster circa 1890s - Listed for $2,257.31
Great Places to Find Original Bicycle Posters
Given that posters are so often reprinted and reproduced, it can be difficult to make sure that you're getting an original print. For interested collectors, they're available online, through auction houses, dealers, garage sales, antique stores, and flea markets. While hunting for them online does prevent you from checking them over in-person, you can find a larger collection of them for sale through digital auctions and online marketplaces than from in-person locations. Thus, if you prefer to stick to the world wide web to source your cycling posters, these are a few of the places you should check out:
- Murray Galleries - An American company, Murray Galleries offers a multitude of stone prints from a variety of categories, including sports prints like cycling posters.
- Galerie 123 - This Swiss company has an abundance of cycling posters in the Art Nouveau style available for purchase on their website. You will have to do a little converting with their prices because they're listed in Swiss Francs.
- La Belle Epoque - Another incredible repository of high-quality vintage posters, La Belle Epoque features a variety of posters from many categories, with transportation (including cycling) being a major one.
- Chicago Center for the Print - When browsing through the Chicago Center for the Print's collections, you'll want to focus on their sports section. However, they don't specifically have a cycling category, so you'll want to keep a keen eye out while shopping here.
Places to Buy Quality Reproductions
While you can find cheap reproductions from nearly every online retailer imaginable, you should only purchase the best if you can't find an original print of the one that you're looking for. These online retailers are known for their high-quality reproductions:
- Art-Prints-on-Demand - Simply search for cycling posters in this New York based company's website and see all of the under $50 poster prints they have available.
- Etsy - You can support local artists by purchasing prints from individual sellers in the vintage style or reproductions they've printed of the original posters themselves by shopping on the popular online marketplace, Etsy.
Hop Into the Bike Lane for These Colorful Posters
Put on your favorite pair of cycling shorts and get ready to ride down the bike lane towards these great cycling posters from yesteryear. A small sub-set of the Golden Age of Posters, these decorative prints aren't a sports collectible that you'll want to pass up on.