Sink or Schwinn: Steel Parts Cabinet, ca. 1940s

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Iconic Americana brands share a number of similar characteristics: innovation, good design, value and quality. Aside from these factors, truly enduring brands become synonymous with the items they sell. Coca-Cola, Levi’s, Chevrolet, Harley-Davidson and Mobil Oil are easily identifiable, partly due to the narrative that comes rolled into the fabric of each brand; Levi’s represents comfortable work wear, Coke is a joyful experience, and Harley-Davidson equals freedom.

In 1895 the Schwinn Bicycle Company opened its doors in Chicago, a city quickly becoming the hub of cycling production in the U.S. Its founders were German-American immigrants Ignaz Schwinn, an engineer who had built bicycles in Europe, and Adolph Arnold, a meat-packer who bankrolled the business’s start. Though a bicycle boom was underway, the following years presented challenges such as the rise of the automobile in the early 1900s, the Depression of the late 1920s and the growing influx of lighter-weight British-made bicycles in the 1940s.

Nevertheless, Schwinn remained competitive, striking a balance between innovative design and low-cost production. In 1934 it released the AeroCycle, which soon became known as the Paperboy or Cruiser. It featured wide balloon tires, a push-button bell and an imitation gas tank. Competitors quickly followed suit and rushed similar models to market. Before long, this design became the standard of bicycle styling.

Marketing and merchandising were also key to the company’s success. In the 1950s, in particular, Schwinn began scaling back its agreements with department stores that were re-branding its bikes to sell in-house; instead, it encouraged bike shops to stock Schwinn products exclusively. Such retail partners also carried a selection of genuine Schwinn-made parts and accessories to complement and ensure the long life of the bicycles.

Extra-large parts cabinets like the one pictured were uncommon and generally found in larger, flagship-level stores. This item would have sat pride-of-place on a bike shop’s counter as a utilitarian piece housing various Schwinn parts according to their serial numbers. The door can be raised to allow access to the inner, flat work surface, and the divided drawers below are easy to reach. Free of dents, this chest boasts its original handles and clear, sharp graphics on both the outside and inside.

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