- The Bicycle: Towards a Global History by Paul Smethurst
For such a seemingly simple machine, the bicycle has had a remarkably complex history. That complexity becomes especially evident once the history of the bicycle ventures beyond Western Europe and North America, moves from invention to consumption, from technology to taste, and seeks to explain the bicycle’s rise to near-global ubiquity. In this brief but ambitious book, Paul Smethurst adopts a three-stage strategy for unravelling bicycle history, captured in the titles of each of his three main chapters. In the first of these, “Invention,” he traces the early evolution of the bicycle, assessing the practicality and fashionable appeal of its various precursors from the Draisine “hobby-horse” early in the nineteenth century, through the French velocipede or “boneshaker” and the “Ordinary” or “Penny-farthing,” to the “safety” bicycle of the 1890s. He situates the triumph of the machine in the context of technological change and industrial development in the West and its newfound capacity for mass production, but he also locates it in a society hungry for increased personal mobility and for a convenient means to escape from rapidly expanding cities into the countryside and favorably equipped with growing disposable incomes. The bicycle, or at least its popular imagery, captured what Smethurst terms “the breezy spirit of modernism” (36) and a growing appetite for healthy, outdoor exercise. The appeal of the bicycle lay, too, in its “intimate associations with the human body” (52), functioning as a kind of mechanical prosthesis, extending the normal powers of the human frame, and unleashing a modernist exhilaration at the enhanced possibilities of covering distance and commanding speed.
The second chapter, “Mobility,” turns to the practical and cultural impact of cycling in the West. While skeptical of some of the more extravagant claims [End Page 1003] made for its egalitarian effect, Smethurst considers the symbolic as well as the material significance of the bicycle, its importance as a vehicle for the “New Woman” (Smethurst is not alone in finding cycling puns hard to resist) and in feeding women’s appetite for physical freedom and social mobility, and its gradual transition from being a costly, high-status machine to its more quotidian use as an affordable vehicle for lower-class recreation and employment. Gender and class are central to this story, while the adoption of the bicycle by some socialists hinted at new possibilities for political mobilization as well. Despite itself being a machine and a product of industrial modernity, the bicycle came to be seen by the 1930s as (in the words of one American newspaper) “the most convenient means to express the biological and spiritual dissatisfaction with the machine age” (75). The semiotics of the bicycle—its dramatic representation in fiction, advertising, and art—became a critical part of the machine’s wider cultural presence, only to be eclipsed, in part, by the rise of the automobile.
Having established the bicycle as a product of Western industrial modernity, in the book’s third chapter, “Crossing,” Smethurst turns to its material and cultural impact beyond the West. Although India, Southeast Asia, and Africa receive some attention here (and Latin America none at all), the main focus is on Japan and China and the contrast between them. In Japan the bicycle gained rapid acceptance, its arrival coinciding with the parallel rise of westernization and industrialization, facilitating both domestic cycle use and the production of bicycles for export. Although Smethurst does not develop the point, the Japanese Army saw the military potential of the bicycle (so effectively deployed during World War II) from an early date. By contrast, outside the treaty ports, the bicycle made slow headway in China: it was exotic and expensive, prejudicially associated with foreigners and with unwonted physical labor. Generally unsuited for women (prostitutes apart), the bicycle acquired a veneer of erotic glamor during the Republican era through Shanghai’s “calendar girls,” but upcountry it had little apparent appeal or utility until the Communist takeover in 1949. From then onwards the rise of the bicycle in China...