Aug 5, 2015

Wheels of Change

Library of Virginia

How the bicycle boom of the 1890s brought about societal change.  Told through the images of Puck Magazine, 1894-1898.

The Boom
During the 1890s, Americans took up bicycling in record numbers. Known as the "Bicycle Boom," this period followed the invention of the safety bicycle; a move away from Ordinary bicycles of earlier decades which featured a large front wheel in order to increase speed. Ordinary's required extreme physical ability to mount and ride and were to blame for many accidents. The safety bike featured a chain drive transmission and gear ratios which allowed for smaller wheels, thus making them easier for everyone to ride. The boom was seen as a craze by many. The image on the right attests to various American fads that did eventually die out.  As the decade wore on, it became evident that the bicycle was more than a fad; it was an agent of change.

Bicycles were on everyone's mind. Here is an imaginative reinterpretation of history if bicycles had been available.

Titled, "There's No Telling Where It Will Stop," this cartoon, shown in the next four slides, satirized the ubiquity of bicycles in daily life through outlandish scenarios.

Not everyone was enthusiastic about the bicycle boom, as this cartoon titled, "Overdoing Things-The Tendency of the Day," shows.

Politicians took advantage of the bicycle boom for their own gain.

Others enjoyed the time-saving features of travelling by bike.

Susan B. Anthony stated in 1896 that the bicycle "has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world." The bicycle was a crucial part of the 19th century women's movement; providing mobility and independence to scores of women. The need for bifurcated garments, or bloomers, to make riding easier gained popularity and challenged societal norms of how women dressed and their place in society. This "New Woman" could go places on her own, find work, and enjoy recreation. 

Born out of the temperance and abolitionist movements of decades before, the "New Woman" was no longer restricted to the home. She was active in society in various roles.

Less restrictive clothing provided freedom of movement for women. For the first time, recreation became an integral part of women's lives.

The bicycle afforded young people the chance to interact unsupervised. As a result, relationships grew more casual. The potential for romance was often used as a selling point in advertisements.

People of all ages enjoyed the mobility afforded by bicycles.

The bicycle boom alarmed churches who felt congregants were skipping church to ride.

Suggestions to take the church to the Wheelmen soon popped up.

Touting the benefits of cycling helped showcase that reform wasn't necessarily a bad thing.

Advertising and Manufacture
The bicycle boom kicked off a boom in manufacturing as well. The pneumatic tire, hollow steel tube frame, ball bearings, and wire spokes were all part of the push to standardize production. The boom gave the template for the national highway system as cyclists demanded paved roads. The safety bike was one of the first mass produced products; with over a million a year being produced by the mid-1890s. Advertisers capitalized on the boom and featured women and advancements in technology in many advertisements.

Columbia Manufacturing Inc., originally named Pope Manufacturing Co., founded the U.S. bicycle industry in 1877.

By the mid-1890s there were over 300 bicycle manufacturers in the United States. Many, like the Davis Sewing Machine Co., branched out into bicycle manufacturing because of the boom.

John William Kiser transformed the Chicago Sewing Machine Company into Monarch Cycle Manufacturing Company during the bicycle boom of the 1890s. He sold the company to the Bicycle Trust in 1899.

The hollow steel tube invented for the bicycle frame is structurally sound. It's both light and strong.

The pneumatic tire, or air-filled rubber tire, was invented during this period and provided riders with a smoother riding experience.

Bicycle seat manufacturers developed an array of seat styles to prevent female "immodesty." Buyers were told of health benefits to using hollowed out saddles.

In addition to paved roads, manufacturers developed other safety features for bicycle riders. Bells and lamps, as seen in these advertisements, are clear forerunners of the automobile horn and headlight.

Cycling became a prime example of gender equality through promotion of women's athletic activity, less restrictive clothing necessary to participate, and the independence available on two wheels.

The bicycle boom of the 1890s contributed to the women's reform movement, was the forerunner to the automobile, and changed manufacturing.  The bicycle proved to be more than a fad and has had a lasting relevance in American life. 
Credits: Story

All Images from "Puck Magazine," volumes 35-43, 1894-1898.

Text and arrangement by Dana Puga for the Library of Virginia, with assistance from Sonya Coleman.

Imaging by the LVA Photo & Digital Imaging Services Department

For the Library of Virginia

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.