- First Taste of Freedom: A Cultural History of Bicycle Marketing in the United States by Robert J. Turpin
During his weekly children's TV show, Bob Keeshan, better known as Captain Kangaroo, often sang the praises of a particular bike. The jovial showman was fond of proclaiming, "Schwinn—the quality bikes are best!" and adding, "Prices slightly higher in the South and in the West." The fact that the Chicago-based company was a major sponsor of the program was purely coincidental. In 1971, when the Federal Trade Commission decided to stop blatant advertising in children's programming (most viewers of this show were younger than six), the captain got around the prohibition by adding to his stable of regular characters a new one: Mr. Schwinn Dealer. A 1973 internal study of the bicycle company concluded that the young audience could not separate the sales pitch from the show's usual content. The show ran for twenty-nine years, from 1955 to 1984, and, during that time, sales of this bicycle brand increased significantly.
This episode, which opens Robert J. Turpin's First Taste of Freedom: A Cultural History of Bicycle Marketing in the United States, is a telling example of the way that, in the past 150 years, bicycles have been an important part of American culture and life and of their representation and marketing. Turpin examines the vehicle's ever-changing image and significance, the way that Americans' attitudes toward bicycles and cycling changed, and how manufacturers built upon these transformations (and aided in their creation) with their marketing and sale campaigns.
Turpin starts his analysis in 1868 with the Boneshaker (a bicycle that had pedals, a wrought-iron frame, wooden wheels, and iron tires, resulting in an uncomfortable ride) and shows how manufacturers, appealing at first to male members of the upper classes, gradually expanded the intended consumer base of this bicycle and of other types with age, gender, and class broadening.
The author ably demonstrates how bicycle manufacturers responded to the appearance of the automobile and the emergence of suburbia and the way bicycles were suddenly perceived as a vehicle solely fit for the poor and unworldly. He also discusses how children's consumerism developed, as new sales pitches were necessary and the introduction and development of new bicycle types in the 1970s and 1980s (notably the BMX and the mountain bike).
Using interviews, cycling newspapers and journals, market research studies, and industry and government publications, Turpin references a wide range of individuals. [End Page 431] These include captains of industry such as Albert A. Pope, who in the late 1870s began mass-producing High Wheelers; film stars Katherine Hepburn and Joan Crawford, whose photos showing them enjoying cycling helped increase sales; and Santa Claus, who in an early print ad announced that boys and girls who cycle are not as likely to get sick "because the bicycle makes them breathe more fresh air, makes their muscles strong and keeps colds, mumps and measles away" (88).
While studies of marketing history abound, they have ignored the bicycle despite the fact that (as Carlo Mari shows in his analysis of the Italian company Bianchi) manufacturers developed, from the earliest days of production, sophisticated marketing strategies geared to answer the needs of specific groups and changing needs. Peddling Bicycles to America: The Rise of an Industry by Bruce D. Epperson (2010) is the only other study of the topic but ends in the First World War, so any light shed on the subject is welcome, and Turpin's book adds considerably to our knowledge of bicycle marketing in the United States. It joins several recent studies about bicycles in American life, including Margaret Guroff's The Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life (2016) and Robert McCullough's Old Wheelways: Traces of Bicycle History on the Land (2015).
While bicycle-sharing programs of the past decade are briefly noted, Turpin's analysis ends in the 1990s...