The story of bicycling in the United States begins in the years just after the Civil War. In the mid-1860s, French mechanics working in blacksmith and carriage shops helped develop machines known as “velocipedes” (from the Latin words velox pedis, or “swift of foot”). Early champions hailed the new technology largely for its utility. Calling it the new “poor man’s horse,” such early “velocipedestrians” promised an end to transportation dependency. The new machines gave individuals a safe, efficient, and reliable private transportation option that did not require food or much by way of everyday maintenance and upkeep.
Following a wave of demand, a handful of velocipede makers shipped their new inventions to the United States where they fostered a veritable “velocipede mania” between 1868 and 1869. From New York to San Francisco, new velocipede rinks opened, offering people a chance to see the new machines in action. Though the velocipedes were prohibitively expensive and unwieldy, they helped develop the origins of a new and popular sport.
Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, a new word arose to give the machines a new name: bicycle. Bicycling technologies, demographics, and the geographic reach of the bike “boom” all rapidly expanded. At the same time, the sport became less synonymous with appeals to fostering a “poor man’s horse” and more a sport of recreation, leisure, and daredevil competition, as in venues such as short-track and long-distance races. The bikes themselves also remained well out of the reach of most middle-class consumers. Hi-wheel bicycles of the 1870s and 1880s were difficult and often dangerous to ride. Upstart organizations such as the League of American Wheelmen (LAW, founded 1880 in Rhode Island) embraced the exclusionary technology and thus helped white and predominantly upper-class bicyclists push back against demands for better access to the sport routinely called for by women, workers, and non-whites seeking more practical and utilitarian points of entry. Wheelmen built elaborate new clubhouses throughout the country to house their bikes and equipment and provide a space to their bicycling clubs. Yet access to these places was never equally shared.
Continuing innovations in technology, along with challenges to the sport’s culture of exclusion, helped vastly expand the availability, safety, and practicality of bicycles in the early 1890s. This led to bicycling’s first real mass democratization in the United States during the early and middle part of the 1890s. Bikes after the introduction of the “safety” model in England in 1885 became affordable and practical for the first time to large numbers of middle-class and working-class consumers. Anxious about what this might mean in a nation where women and non-whites were systematically assigned lesser status, white male elites took a number of steps to secure the benefits of the sport for themselves. In addition to more formal measures such as bans on membership, they also voiced deep resentments toward these riders and communities in bicycling magazines and newspapers. Chicago’s Bearings and Milwaukee’s Pneumatic invited riders to Wheelmen-hosted minstrel shows and other community events that routinely mocked the poor and other marginalized groups while also using the events to raise funds to build new Wheelmen clubhouses and leverage increased political access.
Critics were deeply concerned that the bicycle would afford greater mobility, privacy, and political power. The League thus stepped up its exclusionary efforts after 1893. These labors culminated in a ban on African American bicycling following a League meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1894. This added to the existing yet usually informal or implicit bans women had long endured in their claims for equal access to Wheelmen clubhouses, events, and other popular (and profitable) early bicycling venues.
White male claims to the sport were routinely challenged, however. Women writers such as Frances Willard (President of the Women Christian Temperance Union) and Maria Ward were important early female advocates of bicycling who used print venues to challenge the culture of early men’s cycling magazines. As bikes became more affordable and more accessible to women during the height of the 1890s boom, Willard celebrated the sport’s emancipatory promise in her book, A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle, With Some Reflections by the Way (1895) while Ward hoped to teach women important practical skills, such as how to use bicycling tools, in her Bicycling for Ladies (1896). African Americans, meanwhile, purchased their own clubhouses and helped to organize the “First World’s Tournament of Colored Riders” at St. Louis in 1895, a year after the LAW officially segregated the sport. In the late 1890s and early 1900s, famous racers such as Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor helped claim a space for African Americans at the most elite levels of the sport.
Throughout the late nineteenth century, the dominant white cycling culture defied such perceived intrusions, and remained committed to protecting bicycling’s benefits for an elite set. This sheet music from the Library of Congress, showing a gendered “Jim Crow” as “Lily Crow” on a bicycle, helps illuminate the entangled racist and sexist appeals made by bicycling’s early elite. Bicycling clubs of the late nineteenth century helped transform the national landscape in a variety of ways, but often through appeals originating from their exclusionary politics. Through efforts such as the Good Roads movement of the 1890s, for example, bicyclists helped constitute a powerful voice and lobby for improved national and state road infrastructures.
Good Roads advocates working in large part through the cycling community expanded a national network of paved highways and side paths. They also provided white middle and upper-class bicyclists (and later, automobile drivers) with a network of hotels, restaurants, rail lines, and shops that uniquely catered to the bicycling community. Many of the men who got their start as bike mechanics soon found themselves a home in the tremendously profitable auto and aviation industries, including Henry Ford and Orville and Wilbur Wright. Yet improved roads were usually first built outside the factories of major bike makers, bike retailers, and along important routes of commerce, both to help speed workers to their jobs, and to provide employers with better infrastructure for trade. Local, state, and then national traffic laws all had important precedents take root in early contests to decide where and when bicyclists ought to be allowed to ride.
The bicycle remained popular in Europe and throughout the world after 1900, but fell into disfavor in the United States because of the automobile’s rise. Philip Mason has estimated the existence of several million bike riders in the United States by 1900, of which roughly 103,000 became full-blown members of the LAW during its peak membership year in 1898. By 1905, that number shrunk to a paltry 3,000 members. By the end of World War Two, most U.S. residents saw the bicycle as a child’s toy, not as a serious transportation alternative for working and recreating adults. Their precipitous decline after 1900 troubled many early 20th century commentators. It was the lack of bicycles in the United States that worried diplomat and adviser George F. Kennan. In 1938, Kennan crisscrossed his home state of Wisconsin on a bicycle. He described deserted highways and grew apprehensive over the spirit of self-centered individualism he saw the new automobile culture generating.
The bicycling community had helped generate America’s burgeoning love for privatized, individual transportation options. These two clips make the long legacies of bicycling’s early culture of exclusion clear.
“How A Bike is Made” (1946) shows bicycling manufacturing to be dangerous, heavy-duty work, much like it was during the last half of the nineteenth century when child laborers were not an uncommon sight in early bike factories. Women remain marginalized, and are assumed only interested in cycling for domestic chores like shopping – what “mother” does – as the young boy notes in conversation with his father and the factory guide.
The Walt Disney character, Jiminy Cricket, who made his first appearance in Pinnochio (1940), also occasionally offered young viewers public service announcements. One of his lessons from 1956 offered an introduction to bicycle history. The segment makes it clear just how deeply aligned the bicycle had become with youth culture by the time of the Cold War. It also suggests just how marginal the bicycle had become to the ways Americans thought about their transportation story.
The bicycling community nonetheless began a dramatic turnaround in the United States beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, and sales again skyrocketed—for kids and adults. A new boom in bicycling interest means bicycles are once again front and center in a number of ongoing policy and public health discussions. Still the most efficient means of transportation available, the bicycle, nearly 150 years after its first appearance, remains the world’s most popular transportation choice.
Diverse groups of Americans are still working to re-claim and re-appropriate the benefits of the sport from its divisive and troubled origins. Organizations like Black Women Bike: DC; Red, Bike, and Green; and the Major Taylor Association are helping to not only remind people of the historic presence of these communities in the early cycling boom, but also helping to make people of color and women both bicycling’s largest growing demographics. Advocates are also re-imagining certain vestiges of the first boom and updating them for the 21st century. Tweed Rides and new bike routes are just two examples of a long string of new bicycling events and venues to have emerged over the past decade. Yet it remains to be seen just how long the current boom might be sustained and where, ultimately, the road ahead might lead. The past suggests a more inclusive bicycling future would not only be an important corrective to past wrongs, but an important first step in re-imaging the democratic possibilities that have too often been overlooked in the bicycle’s long and remarkable story.
Jesse Gant (@GantJesse) is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the co-author of Wheel Fever: How Wisconsin Became a Great Bicycling State. During the 2013-2014 academic year, he is working as a pre-doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where he is writing his dissertation on the formation and development of the Republican Party, 1854-1870.