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Spin cities

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When urban America fell in love with the bike

The well-dressed cyclist, 1895. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

The well-dressed cyclist, 1895. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

The recreation movement of the late 19th century emerged in response to new urban conditions. As cities became increasingly industrialized and crowded, opportunities for healthy physical activities declined, especially for poor families who could not afford to travel out of the city. Reformers such as Jacob Riis, Jane Addams, and Joseph Lee pushed for the establishment of city playgrounds and parks. But other means of physical recreation became popular among those who had the money and time to participate. The biggest fad of the 1890s, and of the industrial era as a whole, was bicycling.

Two technological innovations made the rise of cycling possible: the safety bicycle—whose rear-wheel chain drive allowed for wheels of uniform size and sat the rider closer to the ground than earlier models; and the pneumatic tire—the air-filled rubber tube that made for a less bumpy ride. During the 1890s, the decade that has become known as the "Golden Age of Bicycling," interest in bicycling increased exponentially. Membership in the League of American Wheelmen grew from 44 in 1880 to 141,532 by 1898. As an industry, bicycle manufacturing employed just 1,800 workers in 1890 but had over 17,000 employees by 1900. At the peak of the craze, in 1896, there were as many as four million American bicyclists, out of a total population of about 70 million.

The cost of bicycles initially placed them out of reach of all but the rich. In 1884 a bicycle cost $150, about one-third of a year's wages for most Americans. Prices began to decline, reaching $100 in 1890, and went as low as $22 after the collapse of the bicycling boom in the late 1890s. As a result, bicycle riding became less a pastime for the rich and more a hobby enjoyed across classes. In 1898 there was even a Socialist Wheelmen's Club that rode from Boston to New York City distributing pamphlets along the way. Bicycles were a common sight on city streets. And amateur and professional races became a regular feature of the entertainment landscape. The bicycle craze had a domino effect on other industries and institutions. In New York City, for instance, piano sales declined by half, theater attendance dipped, cigar consumption fell; even a drop in church attendance was blamed on the bicycle.

Women made up one-third of the market for bicycles during the 1890s, and the vehicle came to play a surprising role in the women's rights struggle. Victorian dresses, with their restrictive corsets and long heavy skirts, were impractical for bicycle riding. The clothing that made sense for women bicyclists were skirts without corsets or the controversial "bloomers," loose trousers worn with a knee-length skirt by dress reformers since the middle of the century. Wearing bloomers or other reform styles immediately put women at the center of controversy. In fact, the language used to describe the clothing women wore to bicycle became entwined with suggestions of sexuality: The term "loose" (as opposed to "straitlaced"), for instance, initially referred to women's bicycling wear.

Many moralists were concerned about the social effect of bicycle riding. When Sunday cycling cut into church attendance, one clergyman prophesied that bicyclists were heading down a metaphorical hill without brakes, toward "a place where there is no mud on the streets because of the high temperatures." In the case of women, conservatives feared that cycling would tax their "delicate constitutions" and, if they rode without chaperones, lead to further temptations.

Advocates of women's rights, for their part, were quick to seize upon the liberating potential of the bicycle. Suffragist Susan B. Anthony stated that bicycling "has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. . . . It gives women a feeling of freedom and self reliance." Frances Willard, the longtime leader of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, was so taken with the bicycle that she endeavored to learn to ride one at the age of 53. In an 1895 account, Willard wrote of her struggles to master her bike with the help of a series of instructors (and of one crashing fall), and she argued that the bicycle would lead to more equitable gender relationships: "We saw with satisfaction the great advantage in good fellowship and mutual understanding between men and women who take the road together, sharing its hardships and rejoicing in the poetry of motion."

In the 1890s, the bicycle was not just a toy or even just a sport; it was a means through which changing concepts of freedom and femininity—and, of course, exercise—were realized.

Julie Husband and Jim O'Loughlin MA'91


Julie Husband and Jim O'Loughlin, MA'91, are assistant professors of English at the University of Northern Iowa. Their article is drawn from Daily Life in the Industrial United States, 1870–1900. Copyright 2004 by Julie Husband and Jim O'Loughlin. Reproduced with permission of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc.

 

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