The Popularity of Bicycles

1896 found the United States in the middle of a bicycle craze. Though different types of bicycles had been around in the United States and Europe for years, recent technological innovation brought about changes in material and design that made the late nineteenth century bicycle a lighter, smoother, and faster ride than ever before. Doctors wrote about the health risks and benefits of cycling, scientists explained the physics of the bicycle's motion, while concerned critics discussed the changes in women's fashion that so much cycling would necessitate. By 1896, there were over 150 bicycle factories in the United States, producing over 1,000 different makes of bicycles for men, women, and children. They were used for recreation and exercise, and in some cases, even for political campaigning.

It is true that women heretofore, here and there, have been trying the machines in an apologetic, shamefaced sort of way, but in this year they have boldly come to the front as riders, challenging male competition, and making a fashion of that which before was an eccentricity. ...Women may ride in tights, but it is certain that men will never adopt the skirt. It is too dangerous. Man has not courage to risk the complications of an overthrow in a skirt. But whatever costume women may finally settle on for this arena, it is certain that they will not be driven from the wheel. They have joined the increasing army of those who are to roll about the world, and who now are numerous enough and powerful enough to assert their rights to the utmost limit. --Harper's Magazine, from Public Opinion, 16 January 1896

Wheelmen in the Campaign.

Walter H. Chamberlin of Chicago, secretary of the National Wheelmen's McKinley and Hobart club, was in the city yesterday. . . . to have S. L. Trussell, who is at present connected with the Republican state headquarters, take charge of the organization of the cyclists in Minnesota. . . . The object of the clubs is to do active work during the campaign and on eletion day. In the next six weeks there will be many parades and other demonstrations, in which the wheelmen's companies will take part. It will be a new feature in political parades, but will be one that will add wonderfully to their effectiveness. One of the pleasant duties will be to escort the distinguished speakers who may come to this city during the campaign. The wheelmen will also be of much service on registration and election days as couriers. --St. Paul Pioneer Press, 20 Sept. 1896

From a medical standpoint bicycling is valuable both as a prophylatic and as a curative agent. Like other outdoor exercises it takes the votaries away from the vitiated air of closed rooms; but it has several advantages particularly its own. ...Although we have seen that certain muscle groups come chiefly into play, all the muscles of the body are used more or less, and are thereby strengthened. ...The whole nervous system is highly benefited by bicycling. The rider must constantly use the senses of hearing, seeing, and feeling in order to avoid collisions, direct his machine, and keep his equilibrium. This exercise, therefore, is in a high degree apt to draw the mind away from its usual pursuits and cares of daily life. It is highly exhilirating and promotes sociability, since it is both pleasanter and safer to ride in company than alone. In women it is apt to overcome the impulsivenness and whimsicality which render so many of them unhappy. ...Bicycling is no longer a mere fashion that may fall into disuse and give way to a new one. It is a wholesome and inspiring exercise, and has provided of practical value as a means of rapid locomotion.
--Dr. Henry J. Garrigus, in the January Forum, from Public Opinion, 30 January 1896

[bicycle for two]


Scientific American, 4 January, 1896.

A broad, broad smile dear Willie wears;
Of his face its a regular twister.
His bicycle suit is two sizes too small
To be worn by his athletic sister.
--Daily News, Denver, 20 September 1896

Three Thousand McKinley and Hobart Adherents in Line. Display was Grand.

Three thousand wheelmen proved their loyalty to the McKinley and Hobart standard by parading the South Side boulevards last evening in honor of the sound-money leaders.... They rallied from the North, the South, and West Sides, waited patiently for hours for the long railwaymen's parade to pass, and two hours after schedule time they gave one of the most attractive and best-organized cycling parades ever witnessed in Chicago.
The sturdy South Side men, 1,500 strong, rode en masse to the starting point with flying capes and flickering lights, making a brilliant spectacle, one seldom seen on the boulevards, and never excelled.
Nearly the same number rolled in from the North Side. These riders also wore the white capes, and carried illuminating devices of all descriptions, from a calcium light on a three-wheel pneumatic gig to the pretty Japanese lanterns tied to the handle bars.
Several strong clubs came in from the West Side. Some of the latter organizations became lost, and were unable to get through the jam of people watching the other parade, failing to reach Congress and Michigan in time to start. --Daily Inter Ocean, 25 October 1896

The Wheel a Splendid Factor in Developing Citizenship.
Solving the Good Roads Problem.
What Seemed at First a Plaything is Revolutionizing Matters in Several of the States and Cities.

... In most of the States of the Union and in all the great cities, the bicycle vote has become a thing to be reckoned with. In New York it has bowled out the granite ring completely. Time was when a residence block couldn't be paved with asphalt, even if the property-owners were agreed on footing the bill.
... Everybody knows what the bicycle is doing for the good-roads problem.... The most radical of recent legislation is the new Connecticut law (statutes of 1895), which pledges the State to pay one-third the cost of one mile of road in each town each year, if the county and the town will each pay one-third... A better device could hardly be imagined for encouraging road improvement in the poorer regions.
--Los Angeles Times, 26 July 1896

Cartoons on this Site Featuring Bicycles

12 July, L.A. Times
18 September, Rocky Mountain News
26 September, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

[Crescent Bikes Ad]


© 2000, Rebecca Edwards, Vassar College