I remember buying my first 10 speed. I was in grade school, and it was with my own money. The Sunday newspaper had a Gold Circle ad with a Sunn 10 speed for around $60--I could afford it! Dad took me to the nearest Gold Circle, and we found that they were in a different district, and that bike wasn't on sale there yet. I don't remember if we waited, or if Dad took me to Dayton, but eventually I wound up with the bike--Unassembled. I did a lousy job, and Dad took it to a student who was into cycling who tuned it up and replaced the derailleur with a better one. I had a dented rim, which meant the back wheel would lock and skid in the same spot every time, quickly wearing a hole. I don't remember what happened to it, but eventually I bought a used Schwinn Sports-Touring from the same guy.
The Sports-Touring was a fantastic bike for the time. It was built on the "handmade" department at Schwinn. Fillet Brazed of straight-gauge chrome-moly steel with reinforcing sleeves at the joints, using very good Japanese alloy components. Mine was aftermarket nickle-plated, with Suntour bar-con shifters at the end of the handlebars and toe clips. Extremely cool for a Junior High kid, when racing bikes were the style. Mine was a 21" frame--Just a bit smaller than the standard adult men's bike, suitable for my junior high size. Typical of Schwinn marketing at the time, there was little explanation of the superiority when compared to the standard heavy Schwinn frame used by Continentals and Varsities.
I remember having to look carefully at sidewalk bikes for my kids, to find ones with actual bearings instead of bushings. Bearings in the headset ("handlebar bearings") are essential for learning balance--A bushing will make it a lot harder to balance. Crank bearings are mostly a durability issue, and not as important. One of my daughter's small bikes had spatter paint over the bearing cups, inside the bearings--The paint immediately flaked off and mixed with the grease. Even with that flaw, it was the best for the price.
I've recently bought two new department store bikes as gifts--The first two I've bought since my kid's sidewalk bikes. I'm fairly surprised at what is available now. Lots of crap, but there are actually some bikes that meet my standards, at prices less than I paid in the 70's.
To come: Non-elitist guide to department store bikes