- Boston’s Cycling Craze, 1880–1900: A Story of Race, Sport, and Society by Lorenz Finison
Lorenz Finison’s Boston’s Cycling Craze, 1880–1900: A Story of Race, Sport, and Society provides a welcome history of the first “bicycle boom” in a city long overdue for an examination of its early connections and influence on bicycling’s development. Finison’s research, combining insights culled from a wide variety of local newspapers, bike-boom-specific publications, and such tried-and-true sources as Boston city directories, will not strike most historians as new or particularly innovative. But his work builds upon a host of recent and upcoming works that are taking bicycling history more and more on its own terms, resisting more familiar frameworks that have simply folded the sport within broader discussions of transportation, industrial expansion, technology, or “sport” in the last half of the nineteenth century.
In Finison’s hands, bicycling in Boston serves to tell a story that is about much more than the “bike.” Through an analytical focus on such categories as race and gender, Finison [End Page 413] continues the project of examining bicycling’s broader social and political meaning as first pioneered by social historians and interdisciplinary thinkers several decades ago, including (most notably) Robert A. Smith’s A Social History of the Bicycle (1972), as well as several still-unpublished PhD dissertations from the 1950s and 1960s. Academic historians have yet to produce a comprehensive history of bicycling in the United States in the fifty-odd years since these works first appeared. Finison’s book charts not only new pathways into imagining how such a project might yet be produced but serves as a reminder of just how much work remains to be done with the nation’s trove of locally sourced bicycling archives, objects, and resources. In sum, Finison, a Boston-based local historian and cycling advocate, has written a book that compellingly situates his city as the country’s undisputed cycling “hub.”
Finison’s case for Boston seems hard to refute. Following the debut of new high wheel bicycle models at the Philadelphia centennial celebration in 1876, Boston-based advocates brought several machines back to their communities over several subsequent years. By 1880, bicyclists had become a truly ubiquitous (if not also controversial) part of Boston’s landscape. As organizations such as the Boston Bicycle Club arose to answer the sport’s popularity, the city became home to some of the nation’s most important early bicycling clubs. As Finison points out, Boston’s clubs were important in the creation of the League of American Wheelmen (LAW) in 1880. Bicycle manufacturing also took root in Boston on account of the city’s connections to important early industry leaders like Albert Pope. Driven by bicycling’s commercial and popular expansion, the city also developed into the sport’s clear cultural and publishing epicenter. Important newspapers and magazines such as Mary Sargent Hopkins’s The Wheelwoman shaped the intellectual and cultural development of bicycling not only in Boston but throughout the United States. Finison makes a compelling case, in short, that the city’s influence on early bicycling in the United States is without compare.
Because the book takes bicycling seriously as an important nexus for understanding the making of meaning and power, Finison puts analytical categories like race and gender at center stage of his account. He organizes the book around rich characters who embody these struggles in the 1880s and 1890s. Kittie Knox, for example, a young Boston seamstress and wheelwoman often excluded from the sport on account of the LAW’s nationwide 1894 ban on African American membership, emerges as the heart of the book’s examination of how those marginalized from the sport by Boston’s white elite struggled to gain access to the sport’s benefits as an enjoyable recreational pursuit, as a cheap and practical mode of transportation, as a competitive venue, and as a clear health benefit. In addition...