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  • Bicycles: Vintage People on Photo Postcards
  • Duncan R. Jamieson
Phillips, Tom. Bicycles: Vintage People on Photo Postcards. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. Pp. 112. Photographs. $25.00 hb.

Postcards first appeared in mid-nineteenth century Anglo-American society, around the same time as two technological revolutions—photography and bicycles. Prior to this time, communicating with friends or family at a distance was a difficult and usually expensive proposition. Communicating an image of a loved one was virtually impossible to all but the very well-to-do. Soon, these three novelties combined to offer virtually anyone the opportunity to show off his or her skills with the world’s most efficient form of personal transportation. Like photography, bicycles evolved from early, clumsy prototypes until they reached a form still in use today. The Starley diamond frame bicycle equipped with a rear wheel chain drive has continued to be the basic style for the last one hundred and twenty years. People used bicycles to travel, to tour, to commute, to deliver, to race, and [End Page 356] perhaps first and foremost to enjoy the freedom and independence previously unavailable to the average individual. As industrialization allowed people more leisure time the bicycle became a means to fill those hours with healthy outdoor exercise. Combined with photography and the post, individuals and groups could now share this joy with others. As William Fotheringham’s “Foreword” clearly states, this joy is timeless; the photo postcards show people in vintage dress from days gone by, but they invoke in anyone who has ever ridden a bicycle that same feeling of joy.

British artist Tom Phillips chose two hundred photo postcards from his collection of thousands for this volume. Like Fortheringham he begins his “Introduction” to the collection with his love of his brother’s hand-me-down bicycle. In addition to touring and commuting Phillips raced, completing one fifty-mile time trial at a very respectable (to me at least) 18 mph. Like so many others he abandoned the bicycle for motorized transport, but like Fortheringham his fond memories of his time on the wheel are never far from his consciousness.

With only a very few exceptions the bicycles displayed so prominently are diamond frame safety bicycles, not that much different from today’s fat tire cruisers. Referred to in England as “sit up and beg” bicycles, they lack the drop handlebars and sleek lines of today’s high-end racing and touring bicycles. The major difference between them was the existence of the top tube for the men’s bicycles and the women’s step through frame that allowed for decorous mounting by the fairer sex.

Interestingly, Phillips notes that there are more photo postcards of women cyclists than men. While the ordinary, that first practical bicycle with a large front wheel connected to a small rear wheel by a backbone, was used mostly by young, athletic men, once the safety bicycle with its similarly-sized wheels offered its advantages to young and old, male and female alike, women found themselves freed from the restraints of chaperones and body-hiding clothing. Though most of the women seen here continued to wear dresses or blouses and skirts that began just below the neck and continued past the ankle, there are photographs showing shapely legs, including one with some inches of thigh visible. Beyond women and men there are photographs of delightful children, some with children’s bicycles while others pose proudly with what was likely their first “adult” bicycle. Whatever the age or gender of the riders, they are dressed in what might be deemed “street clothes.” While cycling suits existed for men and women riders often wore “rational dress,” the style of these items was not that much different from their regular clothes.

Many of these photo postcards are obviously staged in a professional’s studio. Others are candid shots taken on holiday or during a club run. A few are working photo postcards, set either in front of the place or business or showing a delivery in process. Collectively they show a sense of pride the human has in the machine. The wheel is always prominently displayed as the center...


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pp. 356-357
Launched on MUSE
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