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.