Pedaling Toward Modernity
Setting off from his Connecticut home in 1886 on a cross-country ride, cyclist George B. Thayer filled his knapsack, a holdover from his service in the Union Army, with the bare necessities for several months on the road: a warm coat, extra clothing, spare parts, a rain suit, a first-aid kit. But no cargo proved more valuable than a list he had compiled of members of the League of American Wheelman (LAW), a national association of bicycling clubs formed in 1880 to “ascertain, defend, and protect the rights of wheelmen” (Friss, p. 50). Throughout Thayer’s journey, he relied on his fellow wheelmen for comradeship, hospitality, supplies, and advice. As he traversed the continent on his ordinary bicycle—a Columbia Expert model with a huge front wheel, no chain, and solid rubber tires—Thayer overcame many obstacles and suffered numerous spills; to coast downhill on a high-wheeler, cyclists removed their feet from the pedals and swung them dangerously over the handlebars. Still, Thayer told a reporter that no challenge—not climbing Pike’s Peak or navigating the busy streets of Chicago—had proved so formidable as the amazed attention his presence inspired, the “gaping crowds in country towns and rural dogs that want to test the quality of his socks” (Hayes, p. 60).
Within a decade, bicycles would become a familiar presence on American streets, the passion of thousands, a nuisance to many others, a symbol at once of modern, mechanical civilization and of the desire to escape the onslaught of modernity. New technology—the advent of the “safety bicycle” with its chain drive, multiple gears, pneumatic tires, and lightweight frames supporting [End Page 472] two equal-sized wheels—and the growth of a domestic bicycle industry made cycling affordable for a mass public. Indeed, between 1890 and 1900, the number of American manufacturers grew more than ten-fold. Diverse cross-sections of urban America embraced the pastime: upwardly mobile young men who took up cycling as a recreational extension of their refined social backgrounds, “New Women” seeking the “gratification of being one’s own master or mistress” (Friss, p. 164), immigrant factory workers commuting across the city, delivery boys, doctors on house calls, itinerant preachers, and so forth. The LAW, a fledging group of 3,000 hobbyists when Thayer climbed atop his high-wheeler, claimed more than 100,000 paying members in 1896, and the nation’s leading publications devoted thousands of pages of copy to cycling stories and advertisements. Roughly twenty percent of New York City’s 1.5 million residents owned bicycles. The machines became so popular that municipalities across the country adopted a series of ordinances, guaranteeing cyclists access to the roads, regulating their use, financing road improvements, and constructing sidepaths dedicated for cycling. By century’s end, the U.S. Census added a special report on bicycles, concluding that, “it is safe to say that few articles have created so great a revolution in social condition as the bicycle.”1
Writing in August 1896, Joseph B. Bishop asked whether the cycling boom represented just another passing fad. “It is quite the custom to speak of bicycling as a ‘craze,’ and there has been much speculation as to whether it would prove permanent or would pass away like other ‘crazes’ after a brief period of feverish popularity,” conceded the New York Evening Post reporter and confidanté of Theodore Roosevelt. Cycling “has been compared to the passion of a few years ago for roller-skating, and prophets have not been lacking who were confident that within five years it would run its course, leaving behind it the wrecks of innumerable bicycle factories and tons upon tons of unsalable machines.” But Bishop rejected the analogy as folly. “Is it probable,” he asked, “that having once become the possessor of a power like this the human race is going to abandon it?” Americans, he concluded, were as likely to forsake cycling as to give up railroads and electricity: “It is because the bicycle has added so greatly to human powers that it is the most revolutionary social and economic force of recent times.”2
Of course, the “prophets” proved more prescient than Bishop and his fellow bicycle enthusiasts. Cycling’s popularity declined even more rapidly than it had developed. Bicycle sales plummeted; by 1904, U.S. manufacturers produced only a quarter the number of machines they had in 1899. Many producers and thousands of shops closed their doors. Public interest, as measured by newspaper articles and advertisements, faded, and membership in the League of American Wheelmen, which topped out at 103,000 in 1898, plummeted to less than 2,000 stragglers a decade later. Ambitious plans to construct a network of bicycle paths foundered. [End Page 473]
The rapid onset and sudden end to cycling’s golden age vexed contemporaries then and has puzzled historians ever since. Many pointed to the introduction of the automobile, although cycling declined before most Americans ever saw a car on the road. Some blamed the 1898 War with Spain for diverting the nation’s attention and offering new outlets for displays of manly vigor. Others suggested that bicycle’s very success killed the craze. As cycling became affordable for everyone, elite riders lost interest and the general public soon followed their example. Whatever their favored explanation for its demise, historians of the turn-of-the-century United States have regarded the cycling boom, when they consider it all, as a transient curiosity.
Not so, claim the authors of the books under review. Taken together, they recast the cycling boom of the 1890s. They frame the golden age of cycling as neither a temporary fad nor as a transitional step on the path from animal-powered to gasoline-fueled transport, but rather as a defining moment in the emergence of the modern United States. To be sure, these three books vary widely in their scope, depth, and intended audience. In his biography of a Gilded Age wheelman, Hayes offers an engaging narrative based largely on Thayer’s diaries with little interest in broader developments. Longhurst provides general readers with a sprightly history of the political and legal battles over cycling from the late nineteenth century to the present, while Friss offers a deeply researched, highly textured account of urban cycling in the 1890s. Still, despite these differences, all three authors agree that, even though bicycles receded from the national landscape at the beginning of the twentieth century, the bicycling boom left an indelible impact on the United States, shaping the spatial and environmental history of the city, catalyzing broad shifts in politics, regulatory regimes, and reform activity, and affecting class dynamics and gender roles.
Friss finds it telling that the United States made its transformation from rural to urban nation in the era of cycling. The bicycle, he argues—no less than the subway, the tenement, the skyscraper, the professional police and fire departments, and the city park—answered the needs and reflected the tensions of modern urban life. Focused on a narrow slice of time, the cycling golden age of the 1890s, Friss devotes chapters to the role of cyclists in regulating urban space, to the good-roads movement, to the efforts to construct and finance sidepaths, to recreational riding and commuters, to the “wheel-women” and the matrix of reform institutions in Progressive America, and to the eventual demise of cycling. Demonstrating that diverse groups of men and women dreamed of mobility without smoke, animal dung, or noise, Friss asserts that their vision of the “cycling city” shaped urban institutions and landscapes long after exhaust-belching automobiles and rumbling subway trains rendered their vision obsolete. Bicycles, Friss concludes, “forced city officials to reconceptualize the role of government in restricting movement [End Page 474] on the streets, which would continue to influence how cities regulated traffic long after cycling faded in popularity” (p. 65).
For Longhurst, the cycling city poses problems in environmental history, what he terms “a well-known story of imperfect allocation of scarce resources through group decision making” (p. 4) and, preeminently, in legal history. Long before the arrival of high-wheelers, English common-law traditions and numerous U.S court decisions had defined rights of access to and the codes of conduct for public thoroughfares. The sudden popularity of safety bicycles in the 1890s, however, “frightened horses, sparked fights, and perplexed judges” (p. 24). The ensuing conflicts forced legislatures and courts into action, setting legal precedents and establishing policy legacies that have shaped behavior on city streets to the present day. Defining bicycles as “vehicles” with unfettered right to the city streets and as “carriages” subject to regulation and not necessarily entitled to access to sidewalks, parks, or other off-street locations, the same judges who wrestled with the cycling boom applied their experience to automobiles. Longhurst thus credits the cycling boom for “paving the way for automobiles” (p. 47).
Although Bike Battles surveys debates over public roads from the Gilded Age to the present—offering synopses of the struggles over “Victory Bikes” during World War II, the ways bicycles became a children’s toy in the postwar era, and the contemporary revival of cycling as both recreation and transport—Longhurst, like Friss, frames the 1890s as the pivotal moment. Late nineteenth-century legal decisions, Longhurst asserts, “irrevocably mixed somewhat incompatible forms of traffic on the shared space of the public roads” (p. 24). The bicyclists currently navigating traffic-choked streets, inhaling exhaust and darting between behemoth SUVs, like many other aspects of the contemporary urban landscape, Longhurst asserts, represent the legal and institutional legacy of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.
Kevin Hayes makes no explicit historical arguments, but his account of Thayer’s cross-country ride offers much interpretive fodder for scholars. In particular, Thayer’s attachment to his fellow cyclists suggests the initial rumblings of a seismic shift in U.S. public life, the beginnings of a gradual shift from the party games of the Gilded Age to the twentieth-century politics of organized interests. A Union Army veteran who pedaled across the continent in part to join an encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) in San Francisco, the Superintendent of the Hartford Charity Organization Society, and an avid volunteer at the local YMCA, Thayer claimed that the “fraternal feeling” among his fellow wheelmen had no “parallel in any social or secret order.”3 Unlike the GAR, with its close ties to the Republican Party, or associations like the Grange, which allied itself with the third-party efforts of the Greenbacks and the Populists, the League of American Wheelmen became a model for many of the non-partisan interest groups that emerged on the political landscape [End Page 475] at the end of the nineteenth century. Politically active organizations—labor unions, reform societies, professional associations, consumer leagues, women’s clubs—splintered the U.S. electorate, previously consolidated into broad-based parties. These “mirrors of desire” offered Americans new sources of affiliation that crossed geographic boundaries, resulting in new communities defined by occupation, class, ethnicity, and interest more than partisan loyalty or place of residence. They also gave perceptive politicians new tools to inform the electorate and mobilize groups of voters.4
During the 1896 election, Republican candidate William McKinley and his innovative campaign manager Marcus Hanna famously reached out beyond normal pools of loyal Republican voters. Hanna deluged immigrant workers with campaign literature in their native languages, entered alliances with usually Democratic Roman Catholic prelates, and leveraged the influence of emerging interest groups like the LAW. Not only did Hanna orchestrate visits of thousands of wheelmen to McKinley’s Canton, Ohio, home—where the candidate praised bicyclists and endorsed their demand for improved roads—but the campaign made concerted efforts to mobilize the “bicycle bloc.” Understanding that the wheelmen included influential professionals and businessmen in many towns, that they traveled widely, and that the endorsement of local LAW chapters translated into votes, Hanna organized “McKinley and Hobart Wheelman’s Clubs” around the country. They rode in parades, distributed campaign literature, and succeeded in getting the supposedly nonpartisan LAW president to publish a pro-McKinley article in the League’s bulletin.5
The Wheelmen not only continued to influence electoral politics, playing important roles in 1897 mayoral elections in Chicago and Indianapolis, they also shaped policy. New York’s cycling clubs published a street map indicating paved roads and the best routes for traversing the city. The map also demonstrated the cyclists’ influence, since the paved roads nearly matched their recommendations for road improvements. In Chicago, wheelmen defeated a plan to build streetcar tracks on Jackson Street and instead won its conversion into a bicycle boulevard.
Back in Connecticut, George Thayer took a law degree from Yale and settled into a career as a prosecutor. Once renowned for his daredevil cycling, Thayer became superintendent of Hartford’s association of charitable organizations and earned the nickname “Ginger Ale George” for his aggressive prosecution of temperance laws. Like many fellow wheelmen, then, Thayer embodied the ambivalence of turn-of-the century Americans, their simultaneous embrace of and resistance to the intrusions of modernity. During the 1890s, Americans pedaled into the twentieth century, but always cautiously—often attempting to incorporate new developments into inherited frameworks, refusing to grasp the full implications of building a modern state or of emancipating women or [End Page 476] unleashing modern consumer capitalism. This very combination of trendsetting leadership and deep reluctance would define the distinctive elements of U.S. political culture for generations.
Bruce J. Schulman is the William E. Huntington Professor of History at Boston University. He is currently completing a volume covering the years 1896 to 1929 for the Oxford History of the United States.
1. Axel Josephsson, “Bicycles and Tricycles,” in U.S. Census Bureau, Twelfth Census of the United States  10, part 4: Manufactures (1902), 324–29, quoted in Evan Friss, The Cycling City, (2015), 11.
2. J. B. Bishop, “Social and Economic Influence of the Bicycle,’ The Forum (August 1896), 680–81.
3. George B. Thayer, Pedal and Path (1887), 4.
4. Brian Balogh, “’Mirrors of Desire’: Interest Groups, Elections, and the Targeted Style in Twentieth-Century America,” in Meg Jacobs et al., eds., The Democratic Experiment, 222–24.
5. Michael Taylor, “The Bicycle Boom and the Bicycle Bloc: Cycling and Politics in the 1890s,” Indiana Magazine of History 104, issue 3 (2008): 213–40. [End Page 477]