The term ‘Penny Farthing’ is a derisory expression. In a similar way, nowadays one would not call a veteran motor-car an ‘Old Crock’.
Ordinary bicycles were in popular use for about 20 years between 1872 and 1892 and, until about 1878, they were simply called bicycles.
With the patenting of a smaller wheeled bicycle, where the saddle was much lower to the ground, and therefore safer to use, the cycling press started to call these machines ‘Safety Bicycles’, and to differentiate between the two types of bicycle, the larger wheeled machines were referred to as ‘Ordinary Bicycles’. This was because compared with the complicated construction of the ‘Safety Bicycle’ they were ordinary.
The expression ‘Penny Farthing’ was used by street urchins and guttersnipes and came into use at the end of the Victorian period in response to some faithful riders of ‘Ordinary Bicycles’ still enjoying their cycling. The term was intended as a contemptuous phrase: indeed, a pejorative epithet that was deeply resented by Ordinary Bicycle riders then and by students of transport history today.
“The expression ‘Penny Farthing’ was used by street urchins and guttersnipes
Unfortunately, the public are not well served by experts who should know better. A representative of the National Trust recently used the dreaded ‘Penny Farthing’ words on a Sunday night antiques programme.
So, a plea to all auction houses and history responsive editors: please respect our transport heritage and call these bicycles by their proper name.
Peter W Card, director, Transport Collector Auctions