Friday, December 4, 2009

The Early History of Bicycles

A few weeks ago, while doing research for a paper I was writing, I stumbled upon a wonderful article about the early history of bicycles in the U.S. Written by Sidney Aronson, "The Sociology of the Bicycle" was published in the Social Forces Journal in 1952. It's a great article, only seven pages long, but full of informational gems. If you are interested in that sort of thing, and you can find a copy, I highly recommend the read. (I found it through JSTOR.) Here are just a few of the more interesting highlights.

The bicycle as we know it today--called the "safety bicycle"--arrived in the United States in 1885. It's arrival and subsequent popularity changed several aspects of life here. This version of the bicycle could be manufactured in factories using assembly line techniques. This dropped the cost, making bicycles affordable for working families; by 1900, a new bicycle cost as little as $18. Before bicycles, transportation options for most people were limited to the occasional train ride. Horses were available, but only to the wealth who could afford their maintenance and upkeep.

With the bicycle, city workers were able to get out to the country. Weekend round trips could total as much as fifty miles as families visited neighboring towns. The bicycle "gave rise in the [eighteen]nineties to that new type of mobility which became so characteristic of the twentieth century” (Aronson, p. 311). The bicycle provided the beginnings for our current culture, based on the independent transportation of the individual.

The bicycle also changed things for women, giving them more independence and freedom. Women's clothing changed to increase safety when riding bikes. Skirts were shortened, revealing ankles (gasp!). It became acceptable for a woman to wear bloomers. Relationships between the sexes also changed. Courting couples--often on a bicycle built for two--no longer had to be chaperoned; the matrons who would have played that role did not care to learn to ride themselves. My favorite is a quote from Harper's proclaiming that in the question of right-of-way at intersections, "a woman should always have the right of way”(Aronson, p. 308).

Perhaps most interesting is one of the central premises of Aronson's article: that the bicycle "paved the way" for the automobile. The bicycle preceded the automobile by a mere 10 or 15 years. During that time however, bicyclists lobbied for improving and expanding the road system and added guideposts to direct cyclists and light posts to aid in night riding. The surging popularity of bicycles during the decade between 1890 and 1900 created a need for both traffic laws and a system to enforce these laws. The booming industry of bicycle factories and repair stations were easily converted to servicing the automobile. Bicycles were instrumental in changing the way people thought about travel. Aronson postulates that without these factors in place, the automobile would not have succeeded.

In the years following 1900, the automobile gained popularity as quickly as the bicycle lost favor. It was a short golden decade for the bicycle, but an influential one. I wonder how things might be different now had the bicycle never become popular or had the automobile arrived before the bicycle.

1 comment:

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