Girly Pictures in the Wright Brother’s Bicycle Shop

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Others

Did the Wright Brothers have girly pictures hanging on the wall of their bicycle shop? That is the interesting question that a photograph taken in 1893 presents.

The picture shows four men in a bicycle shop. The two young men in the center display a resemblance to Orville and Wilbur. On the wall in the background are a number of partially clad girls. Written on the back of the picture is the caption, “Wright Brothers Bicycle Shop-1893, Dayton, Ohio.”

But, is it really Wilbur and Orville Wright? That is the question debated in an article that appears in the August-September 1987 issue of “Timeline” magazine, a publication of the Ohio Historical Society. Two experts on the Wright Brothers, Tom D. Crouch and Gerald S. Sharkey, wrote the article.

Differing Opinions

Jerry Sharkey, founder of Aviation Trail, Inc. in Dayton, was given the picture as a Christmas gift in 1985. He believes the picture is authentic.

Tom Crouch, Senior Curator of Division of Aeronautics, National Air and Space Museum and author of the best seller “Bishop’s Boys,” doesn’t agree.

The Wright family also doesn’t agree and backs up Crouch. Of course, one could argue that that perspective is not surprising since they have a family reputation to protect.

Wilbur and Orville were sons of a church Bishop and a mother who viewed her fulltime duty as raising her children into healthy, strong adults with moral fiber and model Christian citizens. The brothers didn’t smoke, drink liquor or use swear words and never worked or flew their airplane on Sundays. Moral ambiguity was not a characteristic of their behavior.

The following are some of the arguments pro and con about the authenticity of the picture.

Crouch is not convinced that the person who took the photo wrote the caption. He finds it peculiar that the four people featured in the photo are not named; instead the shop is identified.

Sharkey counters that as simple as it sounds, the inscription on the back of the photo is persuasive evidence. In 1893, the Wrights were famous and there would be no reason to mislabel the photo.

Crouch believes the shop looks too well equipped for this early date in their bicycle career. Their first two shops corresponding to the time frame of 1893 were occupied for a short time. Initially, they repaired bicycles and sold bicycles built by others.

They were not building bicycles of their own brand until three years later in 1896. By then they were occupying their third shop There is nothing in the record to indicate that they had a well-equipped shop with tools driven by an overhead line shaft until then.

There were fourteen bicycle shops in Dayton during that time period. Possibly, the shop in the photo could be one of those, not the Wright Brothers’ shop.

Sharkey counters that it is not difficult to imagine that the shop was well equipped with tools and gadgets of every sort because they were tinkerers that collected such things over the years. The shop looks very cramped, which is consistent with their need to find larger quarters. Everything in the shop is neat. Bottles and boxes are lined up carefully on the shelves, a characteristic that is consistent with their almost compulsive need for neatness and preciseness.

Crouch doesn’t think the young men in the photo look like Wilbur and Orville. He claims that Orville (right of center in the photo) didn’t part his hair on the side shown in the photo. (Click image for larger version). He also doesn’t think that Orville’s nose looks right.

Wilbur shows some hair peeking out from his hat. Crouch says that this couldn’t be possible if it were Wilbur because he had lost most of his hair on his forehead while still in high school.

Wilbur is shown dressed in a sporty light suit. Crouch assets that in reality Wilbur was a conservative dresser. Also, his clothing doesn’t look like he is one of the workers in the shop.

Sharkey responds that the two young men in the center of the photo are about the same age as the Wrights would be and about the same build. It is difficult to compare facial features because there are no known pictures of them during that time period.

Wilbur is possibly wearing a hat to conceal his high forehead. Wilbur is wearing a suit but it appears rumpled and carelessly worn, as he was likely to do. Orville in turn is wearing a fancy tie and vest that is consistence with his reputation of being somewhat of a dude.

The most compelling physical evidence of all, asserts Sharkey, is the absence of earlobes on Wilbur. The real Wilbur had this rare characteristic.

Another question that one might ask is what would their father, the Bishop and their sister think about the pictures. Their mother died in 1889. It happens that during this period of time their father was away from home traveling on church business most of the time and their sister Katharine was in college.

No Conclusive Answer

Crouch asked the FBI to examine the photo and compare it with other Wright Brothers’ pictures. Because they had no scars or birthmarks, they were undecided. The mystery will have to go unsolved because there is no unassailable truth one way or the other. What do you think? Send me an e-mail with your thoughts.

Previous post:

Next post: