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Amid bicyclists on the Schuylkill, Philly attorney rides a penny-farthing | We The People

This is not a man who follows the crowd, unless that crowd is from the 1920s.

Paul Salter with his penny-farthing bicycle at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Paul Salter with his penny-farthing bicycle at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Meet Paul Salter, lawyer, dance instructor, musician, and penny-farthing enthusiast.

• Them’s the breaks: Penny-farthings don’t have brakes and, as a result, are “notorious for horrible, disfiguring accidents,” Salter said.

• Music theremin-apy: Salter plays the piano, guitar, banjo, banjolele, string bass, sax, clarinet, bagpipes, and theremin, of which he has five — some he built himself.

Paul Salter always wanted a penny-farthing but couldn’t think of a good reason to buy one until his reputation as a swing dance instructor, jazz musician, and all-around dapper gent landed him the role of grand marshal at the 2018 Philly Seersucker Vintage Bike Ride.

This was the time, he knew, to get bespoke or go home.

Though the penny-farthing he ordered didn’t arrive on time, Salter — who gives amazing explanations like “because I have a lot of friends in the circus community” — was able to borrow a penny-farthing from one of his circus acquaintances.

While most standard bicycles today have two wheels measuring around 28 inches in diameter each, penny-farthings have a larger front wheel and a much smaller rear wheel.

The first penny-farthing Salter rode had a 36-inch front wheel. Today, he owns four penny-farthings but mainly rides the biggest one with a 52-inch front wheel, which puts the 6-foot Salter about 9 feet off the ground. He rides every other day, mainly along the Schuylkill River.

“I get passed by a a lot of road bikers who think ‘Why would you ride such a thing?’” Salter said. “I like to ride the bicycle because it’s fun. It’s different. I don’t want to just do the same thing that everybody else is doing."

Salter is not a man who follows the crowd, unless that crowd is from the 1920s.

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Though he originally started as a punk musician, Salter was lured into the swing scene in the late ’90s, when bands like the Brian Setzer Orchestra and Squirrel Nut Zippers set off a swing revival.

He learned to swing dance first, then moved on to playing jazz. Salter, 50, is a member of the swing band Parlour Noir. Their 2018 album was called Penny-Farthings from Heaven.

He’s also taught dance lessons in Philly for about 20 years, specializing in swing.

Old-timey cool — which the penny-farthing drips with — is definitely Salter’s thing.

The penny-farthing “is a great logo for the things that I like to do,” he said.

Salter lives in Mount Airy at “The Circus Mansion,” the house next door to the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, and he works as a general practice attorney, doing everything from civil cases to contract real estate.

“These other activities are a wonderful antidote for the stresses of law,” he said.

The penny-farthing, which is also known as a high wheel, predates the modern bicycle. It was invented in 1869 in France and was introduced in United States at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.

“The high wheel was the original bicycle,” Salter said. “The distinguishing characteristic of it is that it’s the first bike that had metal spokes.”

It was the penny-farthing that brought the bicycle into mainstream, but given its lack of brakes and the positioning of the rider, it easily tipped forward, resulting in many head injuries. Thus, when the modern bicycle, or “safety bicycle” as it was first known, was introduced around 1890, it quickly overtook the penny-farthing in popularity.

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Salter, who has cracked a few ribs in crashes, said he can only reach speeds up to 18 miles per hour on his high wheel, which weighs 45 pounds.

The most common questions he gets while penny-farthing around Philly are “How do you get up there?” and “How do you get off of there?”

“I had one Philadelphia police officer say ‘My man can jump!’ when I rode by," he recalled.

Salter must mount the bicycle — which has two tiny steps on the back — in a sort of running jump and since there is no brake, he must descend while in motion, too. His descent, in particular, is fluid and graceful. For a brief moment, it almost seems as if he’s dancing.

On a recent day around the Philadelphia Museum of Art, children pointed in wonder at Salter’s contraption, tourists snapped photos of it, and adults asked to ride it.

He let a few people test out the mini, 36-inch penny-farthing he brought along but not his big, 52-inch one because, contrary to popular belief, it’s not just like riding a bicycle.

“That expression did not apply to the original one,” Salter said.

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