The Modernizing Effects of the Bicycle

Ben Ewen-Campen

The great changes in American society that came with the introduction bicycle in the late 19th century are often overshadowed by the influence of the automobile in the following decades. Today, bicycles are often seen as an alternative mode of transportation - a cleaner and more environmentally conscious form of travel. Because of this, it may be difficult to realize the incredible modernizing effects that bicycles had on American society when they were first introduced. Manufacturing and marketing techniques introduced by the bicycle industry were massive steps towards modern industrial practices. In addition, by making individual travel available to many people for the first time, bicycles changed the speed at which life flowed in much of America. Bicycles granted a degree of personal freedom of mobility to many for the first time, and their effect on the women's rights movement of the time was notable. Bicycles were used in war, by police, and by the postal service, among others. In countless walks of life, the availability of personal travel offered by bicycles had an incredible impact on American society.

According to Robert Smith, the history of the bicycle goes like this: in the late 18th century and early 19th century, a two-wheeled vehicle with a wooden frame and a saddle, known as the celeripede ("fast feet") was developed in France. The celeripede had a fixed cross-bar and no pedals, meaning that it could not be steered very well and it was moved by running along the ground while straddling the saddle. Needless to say, it never became popular.

Around the same time in Germany, Baron Karl von Drais de Savebrun developed a similar machine, with the difference that his had handle-bars which allowed for limited steering. This vehicle, known as the draisine, was briefly popular among the rich, but was incredibly heavy, unwieldy and dangerous, and was never widely used. Drais de Savebrun was aware, however, of some of the important aspects of the draisine that hinted at the future possibilities of bicycles: "when roads are dry and firm it runs on a plain at the rate of 8 to 9 miles an hour which is equal to a horse's gallop…[and] on descent it equals a horse at full speed." (Smith, 1972, pp 4)

The next major development came with the acquisition of pedals. In 1855, the first bicycle with pedals, the velocipede, was invented and became briefly popular when it was brought to the United States. Because of the ride provided by its iron tires and wooden frame, the velocipede became known as "the Boneshaker." The excitement around the velocipede died off within a few years, however, as it proved to be difficult to ride, expensive, and dangerous.

During the second half of the 19th century, most of the major improvements were made that allowed for the invention of modern bicycles. An iron frame rather than a wooden one, rubber tires (solid rubber, however), rubber-coated pedals and steel rims were all developed during this time. Although the new bicycles, known as "Ordinaries," had one wheel much larger than the other, were difficult to mount and dismount, had no brakes, and were expensive, they became much more popular than any of the previous ancestral bicycles. They were promoted on the basis that they provided exercise to the riders, and that they had the potential to make humanity more efficient.

As they increased in popularity, the use of bicycles at this time was at odds with the most widely used form of city transport: horses. Horses were frightened by bicycles, and cycling posed an economic threat to horse-drawn transport. As a result, a first attempt at hand-signaling was invented by Charles Pratt in 1883. There was much public debate and many law-suits in regards to the rights of cyclists, and in 1880 the League of American Wheelmen was organized as a coalition to lobby for legislation thought to be beneficial to riders. This level of public debate stands as evidence to the prevalence of bicycles at this time.

The "bicycle-craze" did not truly begin, however, until the 1890s with the introduction of the "Safety Bicycle." The Safety had wheels of equal size, pedals mounted on an endless chain, inflatable rubber tires (which reduced bumps) and lighter steel parts. They were instantly popular. The incredible popularity of bicycles at this time had an immense effect on their manufacturing. Smith claims that it was the bicycle industry that was the true blueprint for the automobile industry that soon followed. In large factories, the labor was subdivided and the bicycles assembled on assembly lines. The marketing of the bicycles was also a radical development. For one thing, the big manufacturers instituted nation-wide set prices for their bicycles, so that a person would pay the same price no matter where he or she purchased his or her bicycle. In addition, bicycle manufacturers were some of the first to introduce "planned obsolescence": they would introduce new models each year in order to promote constant upgrading. This became standard practice for automobile manufacturers in the following decades (Smith, 1972)

The bicycle-craze lasted for most of the 1890s. In 1891, there were 27 manufacturers in the United States, and 100 different models were introduced each year (each bicycle costing approximately $135, which would have been about half a year's wages for a factory worker at the time). By 1897, prices dropped rapidly due to overproduction, and by 1899 the annual bicycle show included automobiles for the first time, which came to rapidly replace bicycles as the newest form of personal travel.

Since the beginning of their wide-spread use, bicycles have had an incredible effect on life in the United States. They were adapted for use in many professions and many walks of life. Two bicycles strapped together with a stretcher in-between were used as an ambulance in some areas (though this never really caught on). Many postal services introduced bicycles for their deliverers as they recognized their many advantages over horses and travel on foot. Bicycle-police officers in many cities were instituted in many cities. The country-areas surrounding cities were supported by the increasingly frequent weekend trips made out of the cities. The cyclists would stop at farms along the road for food and drinks. Bicycle theft promoted an increase in lock and insurance sales. New clothes were invented for cyclists (including bloomers for women, which will be discussed below). In 1896, the Detroit Tribune wrote, "It would not be at all strange if history came to the conclusion that the perfection of the bicycle was the greatest incident in the nineteenth century," (Smith, pp 47).

One of the most important areas of society that was affected by bicycles was that of gender equality. Although many considered cycling to be too crude for females, manufacturers quickly realized the potential of advertising to women (Botkin, 2003). The increased independence offered by cycling was embraced by the growing feminist movement. Susan B. Anthony wrote the importance of the bicycle:

I think it has done a great deal to emancipate women. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives her a feeling of freedom, self-reliance and independence…The bicycle also teaches practical dress reform, gives women fresh air and exercise and helps to make them equal with men in work and pleasure...What is better yet, the bicycle preaches the necessity for woman suffrage. When bicyclists want a bit of special legislation…the women are likely to be made to see that their petitions would be more respected by the law-makers if they had votes… (Quoted by Sherr, pp 277)

This quote helps to demonstrate the extent to which bicycles were seen by many as revolutionary devices.

In 1894, bloomers were introduced as the women's cycling fashion for the year. Bloomers, which resemble a pair of pants that is quite loose at the knee and tight around the ankles, were a drastic departure from the common dress of women at the time. It was not long before women began to question why it was not appropriate to wear bloomers when not cycling. Heated debates and controversy surrounded the appropriateness of women wearing pants, and for a time they were a common subject of argument throughout the women's movement. Although the popularity of bloomers declined, some permanent, "rational" changes in women's dress were made, including the shortening of dresses and the decline of the corset "that had gripped generations of American women with fingers of wire and bone," (Smith, pp 109).

Bicycles were also quickly adapted for use in war. D. R. Maree writes about the use of bicycles in controlling a riot in Cuba after the Spanish War of 1898: "They were laughed at and scorned but the amusement quickly died away when they proved effective." (Maree, 2003). Although Maree says that the bicycle never replaced the horse's position in the military, he writes of many advantages offered by bicycles in terms of speed, maneuverability and stealth. I remember a passage in A Farewell to Arms, in which Hemingway describes the terror of seeing German soldiers bicycle past during World War I.

Perhaps because the bicycle is seen in our current society as an environmentally-friendly and low-impact alternative to automobiles, it is difficult to imagine the drastic effects that bicycles had on society when they were first introduced. They allowed for a new kind of personal mobility in cities and in countries that had never been experienced before. This alone must have affected the way that people conceived of travel and of distance. What before may have been a day's journey on foot or an expensive carriage ride was now an accessible journey for a person with a bicycle. Increased travel must have sped life up considerably for many, making things possible at faster rates than before.

Bicycles were seen as a "leveling" factory in society. In 1896, Scientific American wrote: "It is the great leveler, for not 'til all Americans got on bicycles was the great American principle of every man is just as good as any other man…fully realized." (Smith, pp 112). The increased availability of travel enfranchised many people, including women, in an immense way. In addition, the popularity of the bicycle caused a massive change in both manufacturing and marketing in America. Bicycles represented a great increase in the speed of life and in the travel options of individuals. Perhaps it is because of their current position in our society as an alternative mode of travel that it is often difficult to imagine what a difference they made on modern life.

Sources Cited:

Botkin, Nancy. "Women on Wheels: Riding the Freedom Machine." 2003.

Maree, D.R. "Bicycles in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902." 2003.

Sherr, Lynn. "Failure is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words." New York: Random House Inc. 1995 pp 277

Smith, Robert A. "A Social History of the Bicycle: Its Early Life and Times in America." New York: American Heritage Press. 1972

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last updated 3/10/03