This is one of 804 articles in my book Now and Then Again, The Way We Were and the Way We Are. The book is available from Amazon for $16.95 print, $9.95 Kindle and also as an ebook from itunes, Kobo, and Scribd for $9.95. Also from Tolino in Germany. It’s fixed format so it’s better with a tablet, laptop, or computer. There are more articles from the book on another blog here.
7000 BICYCLES carried over from 1897 must be sacrificed now. New High Grade, all styles, best equipment,guaranteed, $9.75 to $17.00. Used wheels, late models, all makes, $3 to $12. We ship on approval without a cent payment. Write for bargain list and art catalogue of swell ‘98 models. Bicycle free for season to advertise them. Send for one. Rider agents wanted. Learn how to Earn a Bicycle and make money.
This is an ad from the J.M. Mead Cycle Co. of Chicago in the April 2, 1898 Literary Digest. Regular prices for bicycles were $35-50, 2-3 weeks pay. Sears advertised a $19.75 “Special Wheel” that is “equal to any bicycle you can buy anywhere at $40 to $50.”
This was during the bicycle craze of the 1890’s.
The high-wheel bicycle, the one with the huge front wheel and tiny back wheel, (also called the “ordinary” or the “penny-farthing” from the relative sizes of those coins) was dangerous: if you fell off, you had a long way to fall. The “safety” bicycle with two wheels of the same size, pneumatic tires, and a chain drive was invented in the 1880’s and ushered in the golden age of the bicycle.
There was a bicycle show in Madison Square Garden in 1896. The New York Times reported extensively on it:
An Enormous Crowd Throngs the Madison Square Garden
A Wonderful Exhibit of Wheels
Never So Many Machines, Bicycle Accessories and Appointments Shown Before
The Garden Brilliant with Electric Illumination—Pretty Decorations and Designs
The Columbia Bicycle company exhibited “a wheel most elaborately finished in silver and with carved ivory handles finished by Tiffany…reputed to have cost $5000.” The Syracuse Bicycle featured “an imposing and gorgeously decorated Indian of the Syracuse tribe distributing souvenirs.”
The League of American Wheelmen (LAW) was formed in 1880 and was instrumental in lobbying for paved roads. Albert Pope, the manufacturer of Columbia Bicycles and owner of key bicycle patents, had formed the League. In 1892 the League collected 150,000 signatures on a petition to establish a national road department which was presented to the Senate. The petition was signed by the Chief Justice and State Governors, and was endorsed by eminent corporations and civic organizations. In response to the petition, the Office of Road Inquiry was founded in 1893 which ultimately led to the creation of the Federal Highway Administration.
The individual sheets of the petition were assembled into one ribbon 1400 yards long, wound on two giant oak spools. It is 7 feet tall,weighs 600 pounds, and is stored in the National Archives.
Women enthusiastically took up bicycle riding but voluminous Victorian dresses were unsuited to cycling and women started wearing bloomers, baggy pants first popularized by suffragette Amelia Bloomer in 1851.
Mary Sargent Hopkins, the editor of The Wheelwoman, complained in the New York Times December 23, 1894:
Bloomers and Knickerbockers Mrs. Hopkins Condemns
Short Skirt and Leggins Proper
The Garb of Man Makes a Fool of a Woman, She Declares, and She is Waging a War Against It.
A speaker at an 1895 medical convention in Detroit recommended the bicycle for women for “moderate use in cases of acute diseases. An hour’s wheeling three times a day is ample.” But he commented that bloomers “lessened the respect of mankind for womanhood and blemished the landscape.”
The Bachelor of Arts, a University of Michigan publication, wrote in May,1895 of a student who, finding it inconvenient to change clothes after cycling, wore her bloomers around the boarding house where she lived. Mrs. Eames, the owner of the boarding house objected and the student agreed to only wear her bloomers when cycling.
“But Miss Brown of the Medical School cried ‘tyranny!’ when she heard of it, and put her bloomers right on and sallied forth into the street, and declared war. Some of the professors’ wives who ride bicycles sided with her, and declared it to be the constitutional right of every woman to wear bloomers with or without bicycles whenever she would.” Mrs. Eames then declared she would have no bloomers worn in her house. Thus started the Ann Arbor “Bloomer War.”
“The Bachelor’s opinion is that only pretty women should wear bloomers at any time.”
Copyright © 2015 Joseph Mirsky