Bicycle Commuting in the Late 19th Century
by Joe Ward — Semi-Official Club Historian
American bicycle sales in the 1970s and 1980s finally have caught up with those of the mid- to late-1890s, but bicycle commuting isn’t even close.
Those were great days for self-propelled transportation. Pneumatic tires and the diamond frame had made bicycles as safe and comfortable as they are now, but the streets weren’t yet dominated by motor traffic. True, pavement and lack thereof were more of a problem then, especially in rain or when the streets had been sprinkled to keep the dust down. But on nice days bicycles had a lot going for them. They were less expensive to own and maintain than a horse and wagon or buggy, and more convenient than either horse-drawn conveyances or street cars. They were faster and easier than walking. Perhaps more important — because Americans of that era seem to have been at least as image-conscious as we are now — bicycles were extremely fashionable. Sweat, effort, weather and traffic aside, it’s my contention that the single largest impediment to commuter cycling now is that people are afraid they’ll be thought of as strange.
In any case, that doesn’t seem to have been a problem in 1897, when a Courier-Journal reporter stood at the corner of Fourth and Walnut — now Muhammad Ali — one work day morning and wrote about the people who rode by. The story was in a Sunday paper, July 11. The reporter was there with a doctor and a lawyer, who unfortunately went unnamed. He’d heard them betting “dinner for the crowd at Seelbach’s” on the lawyer’s guess that 2,000 cyclists would pass in three hours.
The three started watching at 5 a.m.. The first rider, “an old colored man,” pedaled through at 5:30, carrying a mop and bucket and a couple of brooms. The reporter noted with a hint of condescension that he rode a “’93 model” bicycle, but added that, nonetheless, his “aspect bespoke cheerfulness and peace of mind.”
They counted 110 cyclists by 6, “mostly of the janitor class,” some black and some white, and including one black tandem team, apparently a husband and wife. The reporter said this “early brigade” tended not to wear golf stockings or “loud check bicycle suits” — which he said “your fin de siecle rider affects.” He said they often had pantlegs tied with string or rolled up to the knee.
About 6 the observers began to see employees of factories and wholesale houses, who tended to “show a little more attention to dress,” carry dinner buckets, and travel in bunches. Clerks came “in schools” after 6:30. “One in five” of those wore a “full bicycle suit” — which I gathered from advertisements included coat and tie and knicker-type pants — and others “compromised” by wearing “knickerbockers,” presumably without a matching coat. “Most wear golf caps or straw hats,” the reporter said with approval, “and they seem to favor a good grade of wheel.”
The “first white woman” rode by at 6:45. She wore a “pretty shirt waist” with a black skirt and “neat tan boots,” — which, according to ads, would have been the high button kind — “and on her head was jauntily perched a Knox straw hat of the latest block.” The reporter was really taken with this white woman. “Her cheeks were bright and she had a healthy look with a ruddy glow that spoke more eloquently than words of her chances of withstanding the onslaught of this weather of ours.” It had been in the ’90s.
As 7 approached, riders started coming a little faster. Earlier ones, the reporter said, rode at a leisurely pace and “seemed to have paid more attention to their morning toilet.” Some in this new group were “traveling at a 10-mile gait and rubbing their eyes as though not thoroughly awake.”
That changed again at 7:15 or so, when the “office men,” described as stenographers and proprietors whose commerce prohibited “fashionable business hours,” began rolling through. They wore full bicycle suits with capes and golf stockings, and rode high-grade wheels that were neatly cleaned and groomed. “They moved with more ease and with less hurry and with a feeling of confidence their places were secure even if they were not in the office at the stroke of 8.”
There were additional women in this and earlier groups, and the reporter approved of them generally. They were “all neat,” he said, “despite the old fogy notion that to ride a wheel a woman must be more or less frightful.” He observed that they were “fully in control of their steeds,” too.
There was a “great rush” of cyclists shortly before 8, riders coming in bunches of 10 or a dozen. But from this account I concluded that the crunch demonstrated one of the advantages of bikes over cars — the drivers could identify one another, and they had to be nice. They all “seemed to be acquainted” and there was a lot of jesting and joking around. “Even your close grumpy businessman has a cheering word for his fellow rider,” the reporter said.
The elite rolled after eight, “really successful businessmen who have amassed some money — resplendent in all the glory of checks that announce their approach a block away, golf caps and all the togs upon which swelldom has set its mark of approval.” The last of these were members of the Pendennis Club, who, the reporter said, “come in from 8 to 9 and make for the club, where they seek the strengthening virtues of a mint julep as concocted by a past master of the art.”
These were the stats: 2,836 riders total by 8:30, 762 in the first hour, 964 in the second, and 1,110 in the third. “All colors, sizes, hues and ages.” At $40 a bike, $113,440 in equipment and $120,000 in accessories. A daily loss of $283.60 — or $107,477.20 a year — to the street car company.
Soon, alas, the automobile had displaced both the bicycle and the streetcar, and civility and good cheer at rush hour were history.
Coming up: The clubs and where their clubhouses were. The hazards of the road, including fisticuffs, nude wading and death by surrey shaft. Racing when people cared.
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last updated: 12 March 2001