December 1956 | Volume 8, Issue 1
If its day was brief, it raised the hem, leveled the classes, and widened a generation’s horizons
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.
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.
Every rider who had any get-up to him wanted his bicycle stripped of all nonessentials, to make it as light as the wheels used by racers. Mudguards, chain guard, hand brake—anything at all that added an ounce of weight, was banned. It was considered bad form to keep a tool bag attached at the rear of the seat, even though a pump or tire repair kit might be needed. No one was supposed to take precaution beyond carrying a small adjustable wrench in the hip pocket.
The one extra that every he-man was glad to have was a pair of toe clips. These, bolted to the pedals to keep the feet from slipping off, didn’t add much weight, and racers used them!
If a rider was old enough to wear long trousers (boys wore knee pants then until they were fourteen or fifteen), he carried a pair of what looked like sections of a clock spring to clasp around the lower part of his trousers and thus keep them from being caught between chain and sprocket. More and more businessmen were wearing baggy knickerbockers and sweaters, “cyclist clothes,” wearing them even at store or office. This made for greater informality in everyday affairs, which was thought desirable. Everything had been stiff and conventional long enough.
The great number who rode bent over aimed also to emulate racers in their speed. Nearly every young man rode as fast as he could and might go tearing along at the rate of ten or twelve miles an hour, or even faster, scaring horses and dogs and alarming pedestrians. Those still compelled to go on foot shook their heads and said it was getting risky to try to cross the street.
No one had less patience with fast riding than dogs. What puzzled them was the silence of a bicycle. Here was a strange contraption suddenly coming by without any sound of warning, and it was hard to estimate its speed. Dogs made common cause and ran out to bark at all cyclists and sometimes to bite at a rider’s leg. This created a demand for a handy means of protection, and a company in Toledo advertised a device that became popular. Called a Ki-yi gun, it was similar in size and appearance to a small syringe. By pressing a metal clasp you could release and squirt a little diluted ammonia. It was interesting to observe the astonished look that came to a dog’s face.
A fast or reckless rider was not called a speeder. “Scorcher” was the word invariably used. Even after fast riding and racing on city streets had died down, whenever a rider got into trouble with the police, for any reason at all, the newspapers were likely to report that he was arrested for scorching. The word lasted for three or four years.
No one was even sure at first how to pronounce the word bicycle. Many insisted that it should be bi-sighcle rather than bi-sick-le. A few clung to the sigh for some time, but bi-sick-le prevailed, simply because most people seemed to prefer it that way.
Nearly all bicycle riders in the 1890’s aimed to keep any conversation confined to the subject of wheels. This was especially true in the smaller towns where there wasn’t much else to talk about. If a man met someone he hadn’t seen for a while, the first question he asked him was apt to be what make of wheel he rode. The next question you asked a person, after finding out what make he rode, was what gear he used. The higher the gear the farther you went with each revolution of the pedals, but the harder it was to climb a hill.
Another question always asked of anyone with a new wheel was: How much does she weigh? It the weight was more than 24 pounds at the very most, then you knew that the owner was not a true sport, or else he had been imposed upon by a dealer. Didn’t he want to be a fast rider? If not, what ailed him? He should know that even for just riding around, 21 pounds was heavy enough. It may be added that when tandems came in, in ’95, they too were of surprisingly light weight, only about forty pounds.
Newspaper editorials frequently said that nearly everyone rode too last to enjoy the beauties of nature. This was not so true after girls began to ride. A young man and a girl would seek a quiet lane and perhaps pause by a brook to sit and give thought to how wonderful nature can be.
If a bicycle was left leaning against a building or standing at the curb, it was not easy for anyone walking by to resist the temptation to stop and examine it. Someone was almost sure to pick it up to try to get an idea of its weight, to spin the pedals, to observe if the wheels wobbled—indicating that a spoke or two needed tightening—and to tap the steel tubing of the frame with the fingernails. The purpose ol this tapping was to note the sound. If it did not have the right ring, that meant that it was not true seamless tubing, but had been made from a flat strip of steel rolled to form a tube and brazed along the seam.
Ordinarily, no one objected to having his wheel picked up and examined. The owner might even feel complimented by the show of polite interest. But if the inspection led to adverse comments, then there was sure to be an argument, sometimes with threats. Bicycle slang was coming into use, and the way to make a man mad was to say that his wheel was a gaspipe machine.
The surprising thing is that, with only about one million bicycles in use in the mid-Nineties, the bicycle talk was so much greater, so much more persistent than it is today with 23 million in use. What makes the difference is that today most riders are children and the heavy traffic prevents their going far from home. They ride to school or on errands. Bicycling is only an incident in their lives.
What brought an end to the craze, around the turn of the century, was probably, first of all, the development of the interurban electric railways; and then the coming of the automobile—not yet very practical, the autos in 1900, but good enough to indicate to the farseeing the explosive shape of things to come.