A giddy fad, it put the “gay” into Gay Nineties, turned grandpa into a “scorcher," made grandma show her ankles, emptied saloons and put romance on wheels

July 21 1956


A giddy fad, it put the “gay” into Gay Nineties, turned grandpa into a “scorcher," made grandma show her ankles, emptied saloons and put romance on wheels

July 21 1956


A giddy fad, it put the “gay” into Gay Nineties, turned grandpa into a “scorcher," made grandma show her ankles, emptied saloons and put romance on wheels


Years from now when men recall the 1950s, A the memory of one custom will stand out —the passion among all classes to remain at home and watch television. Today the TV addict remembered by future generations can also look back to a machine which, in its social and economic effects, bore a marked resemblance to television—though it took our grandparents out of their homes.

This machine was the bicycle, a child's plaything today but which, when it first jangled past the carriages on the muddy streets of the early 1890s. was regarded as a thing of incredible swiftness and beauty.

What matter that the bicycle cost one hundred to three hundred dollars when good suits sold for $10.75? Man was ripe for a machine of his own to cherish, and it was love at first ride— a gay giddy passion that touched grocery boy, deacon, farmer’s wife and debutante alike.

When it became obvious that a new force w;as abroad, society grew alarmed. Medicine warned of the baleful effects on eyes of scenery flashing by so quickly. Clerics denounced as ungodly the “monkeyback” method of cycling—a fad popular with the sports of the day who would raise the seats of their bicycles higher than their handlebars, forcing themselves into a racy doubled-over position when riding. But while parsons preached, envious foot-slogging cops found a surer method of stopping a “scorcher” doing more than fifteen miles an hour: stick your billy through his spokes.

All to no avail. More and more bikes were sold, giddier and giddier grew' the craze. And thousands of scoffers, after a turn on the marvelous wheel, fervently agreed with a poet-cyclist

named Eben Rexford, when he cried rapturously:

1 am thrilled wáth the bliss of motion,

Like a bird that skims the down;

Give me my wheel for a comrade

And the king may keep his crown!

During the great bicycle craze, from 1890 to about 1902, the entire human race seemed to be either on wheels or just fallen off. The craze began with the introduction of the small, so-called “Safety” machine, equipped with two wheels of equal size cushioned by pneumatic tires. It died about fifteen years later when a merger of U. S. manufacturers led to a drying up of the very publicity that created the industry.

U. S. tobacconists in 1895 claimed a drop in cigar sales of one million per day. mainly because cyclists considered the weed bad for the wind. Orders for pianos fell by fifty percent, and dealers blamed this on the machine that was taking the family out of the parlor—though it is a fact that the gramophone was becoming almost as much of a fad as the bicycle at just about this time.

At one time eighty-five magazines were devoted entirely to the doings of cyclists, or “wheelmen,” as they w'crc called. Cycle news was front-page copy in city dailies, and a contest in the New York Journal to send the ten most popular wheelmen and women to Europe in 1896 drew six and a half million votes. Bicycle theft replaced horse theft as a despicable crime. A judge gave eighteen-year-old New Yorker Henry Hubert two and a half years for stealing a bike in 1893.

An advertisement for a bicycle in 1896 showed it had only seventy-three different parts,

yet that year seven thousand bicycle patents were taken out in Britain alone.

In Toronto at least one mayor was deposed for not ordering his streetwashers to leave dry the space between electric trolley tracks. This brick-paved area known as “the devil-strip" w'as the only place racing cyclists could safely practice.

Bicycle races were the high point of any holiday. Bikes carrying one, two. three and finally five men raced from everywhere to everywhere. The favorite race in Germany was the one in which Ben Hur-style chariots, towed by up to seventy-five bicycles each, battled for huge prizes. Even then-small Canadian towns—such as Sarnia, Waterloo. Streetsville and Peterborough, Ont.—offered sixroom houses or thoroughbred horses as bike-race prizes. And at the opening of the Toronto Ferry Bicycle Race on July 8. 1895, the prizes for the also-raced were uncut diamonds. (There is no record of what fabulous prize must have been awarded to the winner.)

”I have no horse to feed,” sang the commuter of the new wheel age. “I've got a velocipede!”

Many theatres, saloons and livery stables closed down as a result of the craze. Railways, newspapers. even churches altered their schedules to conform. but many tradesmen went bankrupt. While so doing, they gazed glumly out their windows as the cause of it all whizzed by. carrying their customers somewhere else.

“There is nothing in my business any longer." mourned a barber to Harper’s Weekly, in 1895. “Before the bicycle craze struck us, the men used to come in on Saturday afternoon for a shave, a haircut and maybe a shampoo. Now they go off on a bike and don’t care w'hether they’re shaved or not.”

In one small Vermont towm when the craze caught on in 1894, bicycles were for sale at the hardware, grocery, drug, clothing and jewelry stores. The blacksmith and two restaurants had them foirent. and the local doctor announced that he was equipped to handle injuries arising from use of the contraption. A traveling fair did very little business in town till its owner substituted bikes for the ponies on his merry-go-round. Catering to the pedestrian minority, a local gadgeteer also prospered with a sort of wide-flanged basket to be hung from the shoulders, "guaranteed to repel any but the speediest cyclist, at only slight inconvenience to the wearer.”

The inauguration of a five-mile bicycle path in Brooklyn on June 15. 1895. drew thirty thousand cyclists for a first-day spin. (A bicycle path was usually about fifteen feet wide and surfaced with cinders. At the height of their popularity the League of American Wheelmen constructed narrow ones along all the roads from Boston to New York.) Fifty-six of the thirty thousand cyclists who gathered for the opening of the Brooklyn path had casually pedaled down from Ontario and Quebec. Two years before three hundred Canadian wheelmen and women had attended the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, their arrival momentarily diverting attention from an exciting show of muscles by a young and handsome strong man named Sandow.

Every city and hamlet had its cycle clubs, Montreal and Boston having the first on this continent, in 1878. Clubs were at first made up of men who admired a certain style of wheel or posture, rather than along social class lines. These lines were battered down as

though they never existed. Spirited maidens in Nineties novels were always marrying handsome manly chaps “far below their stations” whose nobility of character was only revealed when they deftly fixed the lady’s puncture. Lillian Russell, pedaling a gold-plated bicycle to the theatre each day. w'as one of Broadway’s great free attractions.

I he Duke of Marlborough — not so fortunate, or pretty—was arrested for riding around Central Park with his feet on the handlebars of his machine.

By a cunning arrangement of sprocket and chain that rendered it impossibly hazardous for a woman in long skirts, bustle or corset to manipulate it. the wheel changed women’s clothing styles almost in a summer—not without pain and embarrassment, however.

"One ‘bicycliste’ wearing an advanced costume does more towards furthering the cause of dress reform than a score of theorists, writers and lecturers,” said the Toronto Globe on June 4. 1895. “But it requires the courage of a heroine to defy the formal routine . .

which rules all things mundane.”

U. S. papers too cast a thoughtful eye over the changing lines of the feminine skirt. One New York newspaper dealt with its implications under the headline, HOMES DIVIDED ON DIVIDED SKIRTS. A widely syndicated cartoon showed a woman cycling by. wearing a gay boater, leg-o’-mutton suit, divided skirt and knee-high boots. Beside the road stood the sombre ghosts of the Pilgrim Fathers. "What would they have thought?” ran the pointed caption.

H. G. Wells, in his Humours of Cycling. spoofed them all however. “Run and kiss your aunt.” says a mother to her tot as a man and woman approach, walking their cycles. "Aw'right,” pipes up the tot. "but which one is Auntie?”

Perhaps the greatest change produced by the bike was a public insistence on better streets and highways. Both the League of American Wheelmen, founded in 1880, and the Canadian Wheelmen’s Association started two years later in C hatham. Ont., listed as one of their first three aims: “To secure improvement of the public road and highways.”

Thus it was that the bicycle quite literally paved the way for its big brother, the automobile. It helped the automobile in another way too: many of the car builders, such as Lozier, Winton and Pierce, got their start on bicycles, pretesting on these light but strong machines such important auto parts as ball bearings, the differential gear, freewheeling. lubricants of all kinds and tubular steel. The Wright brothers left a decentpaying bike shop for the uncertain.world of aircraft, as did Glenn Curtiss.

The bicycle also started the trend toward suburban living. Now every man, even though he might not be able to afford a carriage or an auto, could have an inexpensive vehicle that would take him considerable distances with ease. “I have no horse to feed." sang the factory hand as he scorched to work each dawn. "I've got a velocipede!”

More than any other invention or turn of events, it was the bicycle that put the word “gay” into the Gay Nineties. Actually. this era—renowned for its roguish, laughing girls and garishly clad, dashing fellows, its barbershop quartets and its mad new discovery of the great outdoors—was a period of depression. When an impecunious Englishman named Smith invented the drop-frame tandem for women, many marriage - minded young people who might otherwise have had to forego the trimming because they had no money, took off happily on a honeymoon on wheels.

“They are,” said Harper’s Weekly, "a fine vehicle for romance."

When bridegrooms limped back from tandem honeymoons, more likely than not they found a job in a bicycle factory, making machines for other honeymooners. For at one time, bicycle manufacturing was one of the greatest industries in America. Harry Dacre, who composed Daisy Bell (“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do”) in 1892. once worked in a bike shop.

The people most frustrated by the popularity of the bicycle were clergymen. What was a parson to think, how should he counsel his flock? Should he condemn a device that enabled the poorest cleric to visit the far corners of his parish, yet at the same time carried his parishioners to the country on Sunday when they should be in church?

The machine was certainly responsible for a breakdown in tight family discipline, for mothers who would not allow their daughters to attend the theatre unchaperoned thought little of their going off on cycling trips to the country unattended. Yet here was Frances Willard, head of the WCTU and a fierce battler for morality among maidens, publicly praising the Bishop of Boston’s stand on the bicycle. Said that good prelate: “Many a saloon has been forced to loosen its hold on young manhood since the advent of the wheel. Street corners, once foul and disgusting spots, have become clean and wholesome.”

Many a clergyman decided maybe the best thing to do was bring his own wheel to church, so he could ride out into the country afterward — to see his errant flock, of course.

Though the impact of the bicycle was sudden and violent—like bathtub gin or TV years later—the idea had evidently been bothering men for some time. Bikelike drawings appear on Egyptian tombs

and Pompeii frescoes. A stained-glass window put in a church at Stoke Poges, England, in 1642. shows a man astride such a vehicle.

The first popular two-wheeler was the "Hobby Horse,” which appeared in London in 1818. This had two wheels of equal size, a seat, but no pedals. The rider pushed with his feet on the ground, "rhe Hobby Horse,” said a London wag, “is the only way you can ride at your ease and . . . walk in the mud at the same time."

In 1865 a Parisien named Lallemont fitted pedals to the front wheel of the Hobby Horse, and created an entirely new machine. An Englishman from Coventry bought one. He moved the seat forward over the front wheel, which he enlarged to as much as five times the size of the back wheel. Thus was created the high-wheeler or "Ordinary”—an extraordinary name for a machine that blazed its own trail to immortality.

It took months to learn to ride the Ordinary. The vibration was fierce, and the slightest bump could pitch even an expert headlong. But the public clamored for it. By 1880 more than three hundred different makes were being poured out in England and France for home use and export. Three English machines, shown at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, started the industry and the sport in America.

Bought for three hundred and thirteen dollars each and taken back to Boston, these Ordinarys and others like them were soon inflicting more casualties on Yankees than the whole British army had done a century earlier. “Albion’s revenge,” growled the New York Times.

The dashing high-wheeler faded from the scene with the birth of the Safety bike — and the Great Craze began

Before long, Yankee learn-how began to triumph. Tom Stevens, of San Francisco, set off in April 18X4, to girdle the globe on his Ordinary. Incredibly enough he did so. finishing on December 8, 1X86. Karl Kron, of Watertown. N.Y., on another Ordinary in 1884 completed a journey almost as hazardous when he breezed the four hundred and fifty miles from Windsor to Prescott, Ont., in fifteen days. “The wind was against me,” he declared grandly as he left Canadian soil.

American high-wheelers were just starting to compete with British models when a new English machine appeared. Consisting of two wheels of equal size driven by a chain and sprocket, it was first sneered at as “T he Dwarf.” In July 1890, however, one of these machines (properly known as the Safety), entered in a championship race at Niagara f alls, N.Y., equipped with a new inventionpneumatic tires, patented by Dr. .1. B. Dunlop, a Scottish veterinarian practicing in Belfast.

The result was disastrous for the U. S. For though ridden by Englishman Herbert I auric, described by the sponsoring l eague of American Wheelmen as "an indifferent rider.” the pneumatic-tired Safety bicycle crossed the finish line several hundred yards ahead of the crack high-wheeler. When Laurie entered another race, the rest withdrew.

The Safety bicycle, with tires that flouted instead of climbing over bumps, had made its triumphant entry. When it was announced that it had a counterpart that women could ride, it immediately leaped from a sporting novelty to a fine instrument for social recreation.

The Great Bicycle Craze had begun.

The English dwarf that now became one of America's biggest sources of revenue and humor was like a twentiethcentury bicycle in all but one important respect: it had no coaster brake.

it had adjustable seats and carbide or kerosene lamps. (“This lantern is no good.” complained a sweet young cyclist. “It goes out every time I hit somebody!”) It had a gear arrangement that could provide speed or power as desired. (One beginner switched to speed gear so quickly his hat flew off. Fie asked a nearby farmer for some string to tie it on. “Ain’t got no string,” said the farmer. “How about a nail?”) It had a cyclometer to tell you how far you had been and a bell to warn that you were coming. (“The nice policeman said I didn't need a bell.” the wife told her husband. “He said my cycling costume would serve the same purpose.”)

Its Dunlop Detachable Tires were so simple, according to the ads, “that even a dainty young girl requires no other tools to repair them than—her hands.”

But it had no coaster brake.

On steep hills the rider had three choices. He could use the hand brake in a series of sudden stops. He could back pedal furiously with one foot while dragging the other on the road. Or he could tuck his feet up on the foot rests on the fork, and let 'er rip.

The coward who got off and walked down was considered beneath contempt. But many a gay outing ended with an accident as a coaster lost his balance or ran into an unexpected obstruction.

Mud. dogs and railways were the bane of cyclists. To avoid the mud till the sun did its work, many did their riding

on special indoor surfaces. The Columbia Riding School, in Boston, was as famous as the Chalet du Cycle, in Paris, where attendants spruced up your machine while you drank. Dogs were a little more of a problem. “If attacked, throw your feet on the coasters (foot rests),” advised Henry Clyde, a cycling authority, in 1894. 'There will be a happy chance that the pedal will strike the cur on the head and perhaps fracture his skull.”

To escape rain or to reach a distant meet quickly the cyclist frequently took his machine aboard a train. But this led to difficulties. Cyclists of every nation had a struggle to have bikes carried free as “baggage” instead of charged for as “freight.” As late as 1X97 the Wheel Editor of the New York Times was encouraging French cycle clubs to battle on against the “grasping masters of the iron horse.”

The first mad llusli of love

What bothered the railways was that if they passed cycles as baggage, they might be letting themselves in for trouble, for the lightweight two-wheeler was not the only machine on the road. If they allowed the two-wheeler aboard free, they’d also have to accommodate tandem Safetys, some of which ran up to ten feet in length. And then there were towering tandem Ordinarys, and tricycles, some with the small wheel in front, some with it behind. There were tandem tricycles on which the man and his lady sat side by side. There were monocycles, up to eight feet high—to drive these the rider sat inside the wheel. There were antivibration bikes, with one set of spring-equipped wheels inside the others. There were marine bikes equipped with floats, racing bikes with hand pumps as well as pedals, bikes with parasols, bikes with big rear axles for farm work, tricycles run by steam.

By 1897-98 the first mad flush of love for cycling had ripened to a steady affection. Though the number of bicycle clubs continued to grow, club tours of twenty to forty miles a day were replacing the popular “century clubs” of previous years. Century clubs were groups who received small metal tags for each hundred-mile ride they completed in a single day. Many had bandoliers of these tags which they wore crisscrossed over their chests. T. FI. Graham, of Brampton. Ont.—where the first Hobby Horse in Canada had been built by

Will MahafTy in 1866 — later wrote of the nightmare of pedaling a century on a tandem with a companion one hundred pounds heavier than himself.

Dr. Perry Doolittle, of Aylmer, Ont., one of the founders of the Canadian Wheelmen’s Association and later founder of the Ontario Motor League and the Good Roads Association, often finished his century being led along a country rut by a boy carrying a lantern.

Races were getting more select and professional, and racing champions were lionized. Ed Spooner, of Chicago, rode three hundred and seventy-five miles in twenty-four hours. A four-man relay set records for various distances which have never been equaled. Then in 1899 Charles Murphy, of New York, earned himself the lifelong name of "Mile-aMimite” Murphy by cycling over a special mile of boards behind a Long Island Railway engine in just under fiftyeight seconds.

The most famous race in North America was the Dunlop Trophy Race, a twenty-mile annual classic held on Toronto’s Kingston Road. A publicity man's dream came true at the first running in 1894 when the judge’s decision —awarding the five-foot silver trophy to (lie Athaeneum Club, of Toronto— was challenged in court by the bitter, second-place finishers, the Royal Canadians.

Newspapers as far away as New Orleans flayed the story. Poets sang of its drama. Did the Athaeneum’s Tom McCarthy actually circle around the barrel marking the halfway point, or did he cut across the front?

The courts ruled that McCarthy had fairly circled the barrel, and ordered Dunlop's to give the trophy to the Athaeneum Club. But till the race itself ceased in 1926. each fresh winner took with him the ghost of a barrel on which McCarthy’s shadow fell—or did it?

What cooled the passionate ardor of the bicycle craze was never understood, even by those most involved. As the century closed, things seemed the same as ever. Each Sunday the highways and country inns were clogged with thousands of cyclists. Thousands more boys and girls rode up and down the paved strips in town, and another horde was reported heading for the Klondike gold rush on specially built machines.

Parking a bike was a problem in downtown Vancouver or even Stratford. A fanciful article in the New York Journal

prophesied bikes would jam the streets a hundred years hence. There was talk of a new bike without a chain, and ads for the models of 1900 showed the longawaited coaster brake as standard equipment.

Horseless carriages were a bit of a nuisance, but not much. The people who attended the first auto show in Madison Square Garden in 1900 were not the same people who attended the annual bike show there. Mainly the rich went to the auto show. Everybody went to the bike show.

Newspapers still had to have a wheel column to gain circulation. Winnipeggers smiled to see themselves addressed as “VELOCI PEDESTRI AN ESTICA LI NAIRANOLOGESTS” (by the Bishop Furniture Co., trading on the widespread interest in cycling to catch the reader’s eye and so draw attention to the furniture— and bicycles—that Bishop’s so'd). Ottawans grimaced to find a local poet parodying the well-known Elizabethan poem beginning, "Come live with me and be my love." with. "Come ride with me and be my love.” Ivory Soap, in its new sales campaign, claimed its product was not only a great cleanser but a fine bikechain lubricant as well. A newspaper filler that found many takers was the o!d theme. “A bicycle built for two is one that Ma rides and Pa fixes."

Everything seemed the same as usual, or better. In 1900 a record total of 1.000.000 bikes was produced in the U. S.. and the census showed that one person in twelve owned a machine.

Behind the scenes, however, what the papers later called “the fad for formation of trusts” was tying up nearly all U. S. bicycle firms in one gigantic cartel, the American Bicycle Co. In 1X99 this juggernaut tried to take over Canadian firms as well, but the formation of several Canadian companies into the Canada Cycle and Motor Co. (CCM) foiled the attempt.

The trust decided that since anyone wanting a bike had to buy from them, there was no need for either salesmen or advertising. At one stroke this removed seventy-five hundred salesmen and about seventy-five periodicals that had formerly lived, worked, joked and sold nothing but bicycles. The League o1’ American Wheelmen had to suspend io own weekly publication for lack of ad vertising. The result was disastrous. Deprived of the chatter, the banter and Bi -cycling news about what others were doing, the interest faded. In an incredibly short time the whole pattern of life that had been built around the wheel began to disintegrate.

By 1904 U. S. bike production had sagged to two hundred and fifty thousand units. Possibly it might have done so anyway, but the trust’s action certainly hastened this decline. The damage had been done. The illusion of camaraderie—one of the wheel’s great attractions—had been shattered. Ehe rich and the rest now rode separate trails.

The hottest thing on wheels was no longer a scorcher on a geared-up bike, but a madman on a motorcycle or racing car—both for the time being beyond the purse or mechanical abilities of the deacon, the grocery boy or the farmer's wife.

Later, during periods of war or depression, men and women would again turn to the wheel. But never again would they look upon it with uncritical adoration, as in the crazy, glorious days when wheelmen owned the world. ★