- Historic Sites
The Great Bicycle Craze
If its day was brief, it raised the hem, leveled the classes, and widened a generation’s horizons
December 1956 | Volume 8, Issue 1
When a craze of any kind really catches on in this republic, restraint does not characterize its reception. The great bicycle craze of the Gay Nineties offers a fairly good example. Listen to the editor of the New York Tribune in 1895: “The discovery and progressive improvement of the bicycle is of more importance to mankind than all the victories and defeats of Napoleon, with the First and Second Punic Wars … thrown in.” Hear also the official voice of the United States Census, at the end of the same decade: “Few articles ever used by man have ever created so great a revolution in social conditions.”
If this hat-tossing enthusiasm seems to overlook a few other, fairly recent revolutions—for example, steam, railroads, electricity—we may forgive the Nineties, for they were quite carried away by the new type of bicycle, called the safety, which had equal-sized wheels and pneumatic tires and could be ridden by anyone. It launched hundreds of thousands of ordinary people into a new kind of fun and a new mobility.
The craze hit all ages. It led to a change in women’s styles—skirts became shorter—and it started the movement toward decent roads. It was the great leveler, too, demonstrating as never before the American principle that every man is as good as any other and maybe better.
By 1895 more than 300 manufacturers were producing bicycles, not counting the many small assembly shops—one of these, in Dayton, Ohio, operated by Wilbur and Orville Wright. The biggest company, with five factories running day and night, was turning out the machines at the rate of about one every minute. At least a million people in the United States were already awheel. Armories, roller-skating rinks, and dance halls had become riding academies to teach beginners in scores of cities and towns. One in Washington had hundreds of daily pupils.
The craze lasted less than five years; it reached its peak in 1896, started to taper off in ’97, and by 1900 was over. But it was so all-pervading, while it lasted, that a large part of the advertising in leading magazines had to do with bicycles and accessories; a fullpage advertisement was seldom about anything else. Harper’s and Scribner’s, and other monthly magazines of high literary quality, published long articles and pieces of fiction by well-known authors about bicycles and bicycle tours. Others treated the subject in regular departments. Medical journals took it up. Harper’s and Leslie’s weeklies used full-page drawings, by such artists as A. B. Frost and Childe Hassam, of the procession of bicyclists on Riverside Drive and elsewhere. Puck and Judge and the old Life, the humorous weeklies, depended on bicycles for many of their jokes and drawings. Many trade magazines, some of them dating back to the early days of the old “high wheel,” were devoted entirely to bicycling. Newspapers had their bicycle columnists. Sports pages gave more space to bicycle racing than to baseball.
As a business, bicycles gave much employment and a lilt to the whole national state of mind. This could not have come at a more opportune time. In the smaller towns, especially for young people, there was not much that was interesting to do. Public libraries were small or nonexistent and public swimming pools undreamed of. Though a few boys played baseball on pasture lots, there were no junior baseball leagues; and basketball, invented in ’91 at Springfield, Massachusetts, had not yet swept the country. Altogether, it was small wonder that the safety bicycle was accepted as something glorious.
One phase of bicycling that gave people a sense of release and freedom was that you could ride to another town. Life had been circumscribed, without much social interchange between one town and another fifteen or twenty miles away. True, there were railroads, and schedules to nearby towns were better than now, for most trains were the “accommodation” kind that stopped at every station. But it was not always easy to find a train that would bring you back the same day at a convenient hour. The length of a round trip a horse could make was limited, aside from the time required, and then there was the problem of getting him fed.
On the bicycle you could go where you pleased, fixing your own schedule. It took you to “the city” to attend a theater matinee and be back home in time for the evening meal. Soon alter I owned a bicyle I rode with two other boys the sixteen miles from our Ohio town to Dayton and, at a cost of fifty cents for a seat in the peanut gallery, saw Joseph Jefferson in Rip Van Winkle, the first good actor any of us had ever seen. That was living. Our horizons were broadening.