07 December 2009

Copenhagen Bike Messengers and My Dad

Copenhagen Bike Messenger ca. 1950
Photo courtesy of and © Copenhagen City Museum / Københavns Bymuseum.

This is not a photo of my dad. I wish it were. I wish I could have found a photo of him while perusing the photo archives of the Copenhagen City Museum but those odds are quite astronomical.

While it's not him, it almost could be. During the Second World War my grandmother - my dad's mum - died and one of his aunts took care of him. He moved from Northern Jutland to Roskilde, near Copenhagen at the age of 15. He got a job, like many Danish boys, as a bike messenger boy in the town. Not long after, he got a job in Copenhagen, working for a green grocers on Gothersgade.

Again, he was a bike messenger, riding out to the so-calle 'Vegetable Square' - where shops stocked up on wholesale greens and fruits in the morning - on a Short John like in the photo or a large three-wheeler. He also delivered goods to customers during the day and he lived with the family who owned the shop.

So this photo, for me, is a brilliant and unexpected glimpse into my father's youth. By the looks of the cars it is from the 1940's.

Copenhagen 'By-Expressen' - Bike Messenger Company
Photo courtesy of and © Copenhagen City Museum / Københavns Bymuseum.

Here's another glimpse into the history of bike messengers in Copenhagen. A company, 'By-expressen' or City Express in English lined up all their messengers for a photo. What a brilliant flock of well-dressed young men.

Copenhagen Bike Messengers on City Hall Square
Photo courtesy of and © Copenhagen City Museum / Københavns Bymuseum.

Here's one of the cycles my dad also rode around the city. They're still present on the streets, but they have been largely replaced by the many brands of three-wheeler cargo bikes we see in the city. The Copenhagen SUVs.

Copenhagen Cargo Bike Race 1950
Photo courtesy of and © Copenhagen City Museum / Københavns Bymuseum.

Cargo bike races were a main fixture for decades. Here's a photo of a cargo bike race in 1950 featuring classic Danish Long John bicycles. In this case it was part of 'Fagernes Fest' - a festival and competition for the unions. Bike messengers would compete against each other, just as barrelmakers would do the same, and so on for all the different types of jobs. These festivals were very popular. Just look at the crowds above.

We posted about the revival of the 'Svajerløb' / Cargo bike races last year and we're looking forward to the 2010 race, too. Next year marks 50 years since the last official cargo bike race in 1960.

Bike messengers in Denmark were called 'svajere' and they were well known for being cheeky and loud and for their use of 'colourful language'. Back in the 1920's and 1930's, if the 'svajere' whistled a tune you could be sure that it would be a hit. In this clip from a Danish film, the woman playing an actress visits the bike messengers to get them to whistle a tune from her theatre show to guarantee that it will be a hit. Just look how well-dressed their were in that era:

We do, of course, still have bike messengers in Copenhagen after all these years. With and without cargo bikes.
Important Delivery Bike Messenger Messenger Boy
They are a part of the long, proud history of bike messengers in Copenhagen.


juffles said...

Are your bike messengers lawless hooligans like our bike messengers are lawless hooligans? :)

(I say this as a committed bicycle commuter, but our messengers are *scary*)

Mikael said...

I assume you mean the modern version of the bike messengers... 'lawless hooligans' is maybe an exaggeration but many are naughty, yes. but they are relatively anonymous in the masses of regular cyclists.

William said...

There are definitely fewer of them (that are lawless hooligans) than there are taxis (driven by lawless hooligans) ^-^
Overall they're not bad, but apples, baskets, spoilage and all that.

Concerning the large cargobike in the picture: I was wondering why they aren't around any more - such a large holding area seems very practical, and people are still having stuff transported to and fro.
I was told they were illegal now, but the only thing I can find is
Cykelbekendtgørelsen from 1999, kap 2 § 3, that states that before 1998, bikes could be 1,6 meters wide, and now only 1,25 meters.

How big is that bike in the picture? Does anyone know?

Marco said...

@William: In Amsterdam, these large cargobikes are still used when people are moving. The steering is very clumsy (you have to steer contra-intuitive and work hard to go around corners) and they are fixies. This makes it not that practical for all day use.

HowardBollixter said...

What beautiful old bikes!

Do you think those well-dressed lads wore holes in their pant-seats as rapidly as I do? Or maybe clothes were just more rugged then.

William said...

@Marco: Thank you very much. They might be clumy, but they look good.

Mikael said...

I actually saw one of the big ol' three wheelers yesterday.

William is right, they no longer adhere to the rules for size of bicycles but they're still around.

besides, nobody enforces all those rules.

william, are you a dane?

henryinamsterdam said...

Not only do you still see the big three wheelers in the Netherlands, you can still buy a new one. We (WorkCycles) continue to sell a whole line of big "bakfietsen" that have been in continuous production since at least the 1930's.

They're big and heavy but really not clumsy at all. Of course a little practice helps. The fixed wheel is very handy since you can ride backwards almost as easily as forwards. And they're built to last almost forever.

Have a look for yourself:

Anonymous said...

Ah,they don't write songs like Tingeling any more...thank god! ;)


William said...

Mikael, yep. Fully Danish.

Sheffield Cycle Chic said...

My dad used to be a butcher's delivery boy when he was a kid so I assume he had a bike similar to the one in the photograph too. I doubt there are any pictures of him on it either. They didn't take many photos in those days - he's not even sure if his baby photograph is him or his sister!

There seems to be a fashion for delivery bikes to be left chained up outside shops as decoration in Britain at the moment, rather than actually using them. There is a very sad looking one always parked down the road for me - I feel quite sorry for it, it looks so lonely without any purpose in life anymore.

Pekka said...

Just found these pictures. Very nice! They are from the same period when my father was a bike messenger in Vasa, Finland. He didn't have as fine bikes though. Long Johns were and still are very rare in Finland, which is a pity.

andreacasalotti said...

My first ever job was also as a Svajer in Copenhagen, delivering local papers stacked on the back rack of a Graziella. I was twelve: happy days!