- 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
A big help in this longer distance traffic was the improvement in the bicycle lamp. The old oil lamp did not give enough illumination to serve as more than a signal; it did not light up the road. But an American invention that came toward the end of ’95 was the carbide lamp that produced acetylene gas. You filled a little tank with water which dripped down through a wick to a receptacle containing what looked like gray pebbles, and when you held a match to the burner you got a light better than might be expected—strong enough to show the ruts and holes in the road.
A surprising thing was the number of older people who found the bicycle just what they needed. New York had a bicycle club with membership limited to men at least sixty years old, and dignity took to the road. An enthusiastic rider in Washington was Justice (later Chief Justice) Edward D. White of the United States Supreme Court. Others were Thomas B. Reed, speaker of the House of Representatives; Representative Tom L. Johnson, afterward a famous mayor of Cleveland; and the Chinese ambassador, who presented a novel spectacle in his flowing silken robes, which required him to use a woman’s type of wheel.
Bicycling got an added boost, and all the more respectability, when society people took it up. It had already been adopted by the aristocracy in England and France. A young man, C. Wyndham Quin, a relative of Lord Dunraven, wanting to do something helpful for the United States, organized the Michaux Cycle Club, named for a French bicycle inventor. The Michaux Club soon had among its members the Vanderbilts, Goulds, and others of the monde. It rented an old armory on upper Broadway, fitted up dressing and club rooms, and provided space where members rode, two evenings a week, while the band played. Sometimes there were exhibitions of trick riding by professionals. What appealed to the members was that they could eat terrapin and other rich or exotic foods, and yet, by exercising on the bicycle, keep down the waistline.
Soon they began to ride in groups to the Claremont Inn, on Riverside Drive, for breakfast, or to the Westchester Country Club for lunch. Sometimes the society columns announced that the club would make special excursions to Nyack, Englewood, or other quiet suburban retreats. So popular was bicycling with the rich and fashionable that William K. Vanderbilt had to provide wheels at his Newport mansion for guests who had formerly been content with horses.
Other cycling clubs were being formed. Some would ride about at night with Japanese lanterns. Some, in their enthusiasm, had yells. The yell lor the Lakeside Cycle Club near Cleveland went something like this: “Rah, rah; Ziss, boom, bah! Who are we? Who are, we? We are the people of the L.C.C.! Lakeside, Cleveland, O-hi-O!”
A piece of news that added to the wheelmen’s prestige was that Annie Oakley, in the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, shot at glass balls while riding a wheel instead of a horse.
Doctors were often quoted in newspapers and magazines about the effect of bicycling. The consensus was that not in 200 years had any one thing been of so great benefit to mankind; that the bicycle gave more general physical exercise than almost anything except swimming. Thousands who never before got much outdoor exercise were now strengthening and developing their bodies. It was mentioned, too, that thousands of city folk who knew nothing about nature were getting out into the country where they could inspect the birds and wild flowers and let taut nerves relax. A few doctors, though, predicted that bicycling would cause numbness of hands and feet and perhaps permanently damage the nerves. Harper’s Weekly in an editorial stressed that on a bicycle, “the fastest vehicle propelled by animal power,” the same effort could take a man six times as far as he could walk, and a cyclist should come to know hundreds of square miles.
The Bicycling World even suggested that the time might come when there would have to be accommodations at public schools for bicycles; that children would be using wheels and would ride to school on them it they had any place to put them when they got there.
But not many children had bicycles. Teen-agers, yes, but not small fry. The reason was that bicycles were expensive, a good one costing from $100 to $125, which was money in the middle Nineties, too much for a plaything. (Today young children and teen-agers make up nearly ninety per cent of all bicyclists.)
The most numerous riders were in their late teens and early twenties, and most of them were determined to look like the professional racers. They wanted low handle bars, patterned after a ram’s horn, the saddle placed well forward, and, to avoid wind resistance, they rode humped over with the back almost parallel to the road. Any high-school boy seen riding with upturned bars, sitting upright, would have been called a sissy. Mothers could be heard screaming at their sons to sit up straight. Some doctors said we would become a nation of humpbacks.