As a public health precaution due to COVID-19, all Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo are temporarily closed. We are not announcing a reopening date at this time and will provide updates on our website and social media.

Velocipede used by Buster Keaton in the film Our Hospitality

Velocipede used by Buster Keaton in the film Our Hospitality

Usage conditions apply
Downloads
Description
Velocipede 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 hill 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."
Location
Currently not on view
Object Name
Velocipede
hobby horse
pedestrian curricle
swift walker
dandy horse
Date made
1923
place made
United States: California, Los Angeles
used
United States: California, Truckee
Measurements
overall: 42 in x 73 in x 20 in; 106.68 cm x 185.42 cm x 50.8 cm
ID Number
CL.308263
accession number
71392
catalog number
308263
Credit Line
Gift of Buster Keaton
subject
Motion Pictures
Bicycling
Entertainment, Film
See more items in
Cultural and Community Life: Entertainment
Popular Entertainment
Transportation
Data Source
National Museum of American History
Nominate this object for photography.   

Our collection database is a work in progress. We may update this record based on further research and review. Learn more about our approach to sharing our collection online.

If you would like to know how you can use content on this page, see the Smithsonian's Terms of Use. If you need to request an image for publication or other use, please visit Rights and Reproductions.

Note: Comment submission on our collection pages is temporarily unavailable. Please check back soon!

If you have a question or require a personal response, please visit our FAQ or contact page.