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My December 2020 Artifact of the Month is a 125-year old pair of quilted football pants manufactured by a.....bicycle company? The pants, which appear to be constructed of duck canvas (a heavy woven cotton fabric), feature heavily padded hips and knees, a hidden fly, and quilted thigh padding. The pants exhibit soiling from nineteenth century football fields throughout. Of particular interest in this artifact, however, is the manufacturer, the Overman Wheel Company of Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, the preeminent American manufacturer of bicycles in the 1880's and 1890's.
c.1895-1898 Overman Wheel Co.
Victor Athletic Goods
Quilted Football Pants
The Overman Wheel Company
Beginning in the late 1880's, A.G. Spalding & Bros. served as Overman's special agents and distributed their bicycles to the western United States. By 1893, however, the relationship between the two manufacturers had soured. In pursuit of building his sporting goods empire, Albert Spalding acquired several bicycle companies, including the Lamb Knitting Machine Company in Chicopee Falls, which had previously manufactured bicycle wheels for Overman. Spalding moved Charles Whitney, an executive from its western division, to the Chicopee plant to ramp up production of Spalding's Credenza line of bicycles, a direct competitor to the Victor. In response to this challenge, Overman announced a massive new venture in 1894; the development of a complete line of sporting goods to compete with Spalding. Building on his Victor line's brand recognition for quality, Overman named the new venture "Victor Athletic Goods."
The Victor line included baseball, basketball, tennis, boxing, gymnasium, and perhaps most aggressively, football goods. With the addition of the sporting goods line, at its peak, the Chicopee Falls factory employed over 1,500 workers. Overman's marketing effort to make "The Victor" synonymous with the finest quality athletic goods available may have triggered Spalding to brand its top of the line offerings as simply "The Spalding."
Unfortunately for Overman, it's business was still heavily leveraged in bicycle manufacturing as the country entered into an economic recession in 1896. With public demand for bicycles still relatively high however, manufacturers flooded the market, driving the average price of a new bicycle below $40. Compounding the problem further, retailers began offering used bicycles for as low as $10. The demand for Overman's high-priced Victor bicycles dropped precipitously. Overman cut prices to maintain marketshare, but, as a result, was unable to generate enough revenue to pay over $500,000 in debt incurred for factory expansions and Albert Overman's reportedly lavish lifestyle. The company avoided bankruptcy by negotiating new terms with its creditors in 1897, incurring even more debt in the process. In 1898, Overman sold the Victor Athletic Goods division to Leroy Rogers and Charles Whitney, who left Spalding and incorporated the Victor Sporting Goods Company.
Whitney's reimagined Victor logo borrowed heavily from Overman's flying wheel logo design. He replaced the wheel with a baseball but kept the iconic Victor wings. Victor Sporting Goods would continue to manufacture top quality athletic goods until it was purchased by A. G. Spalding & Bros. in 1918 and merged with Wright & Ditson. The fact that Whitney was a long time Spalding executive and that the company eventually was acquired by Spalding suggests the possibility that Whitney's purchase of Victor may have been part of another clandestine Spalding arrangement to monopolize the American sporting goods market. Spalding had purchased rivals A.J. Reach and Wright & Ditson in 1892 but continued to operate them as independent concerns until the late 1910's, potentially to skirt anti-trust laws.
Victor Ad, Monticello Jasper County News, March 12, 1896
The U of M Daily, December 4, 1895
Victor Ad, Standard Daily, October 11, 1897
Spalding Bicycle Catalog, 1892
Boonville Weekly Enquirer
September 29, 1894
Princeton Daily Princetonian
November 15, 1894
New York World, December 29, 1897
Overman Ad, circa 1891
Boston Sunday Globe, January 25, 1885