Bicycling in 1896: Good, Clean Fun or Dangerous Fad?

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With a nationwide surge in the popularity of bicycles for use in leisure and transportation, the city of Louisville, along with cities across the nation, has in recent years turned more attention to bicycles and bicyclists when planning our urban infrastructure. But this is not the first time the city, or the nation, has planned around bicycles. The first great bicycle boom came over a century ago, when the safe, easy-to-master modern safety bicycle, largely the same as today’s bicycles, replaced the unsteady, cumbersome penny-farthing (or high-wheeler), and immediately drew an army of dedicated “wheelmen,” and women.

Among other lasting impacts, the popularity of the bicycle in the late 19th Century, and an intense push by bicycling advocates, led to the widespread adoption of paved roads replacing cobblestones and dirt in cities and towns. Much of the advocacy on this count was spearheaded by the League of American Wheelmen, which held its 17th Annual Meet in Louisville from August 10th to 15th, 1896. The meet drew bicyclists from across the country, as well as thousands of local onlookers. The official program, a copy of which resides at the Filson, described a week of organized rides, races held at Fontaine Ferry Park, nightly “smokers” (parties and storytelling sessions) and a bicycle parade through town. The event was deemed a rousing success, and certainly illustrated the popularity and widespread adoption of the bicycle.

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A poem composed for the 1896 meet, and published in the official program.

But not everyone was ready to accept this popular new means of transportation. In November of the same year, General Don Carlos Buell, experienced Civil War veteran and then resident of rural Rochester, Kentucky, expressed his reservations about the bicycle in a letter to James Grant Wilson of New York. The letter is part of the Don Carlos Buell Papers held at the Filson. After eight pages spent praising the horse he rode into battle during the war, Red Oak, who “threw [him] three times,” and was “dangerous to any horse and rider that came along side of him,” Buell eventually turns to the bicycle, which, despite being tamer (and more pleasant to the nose) than a horse, comes in for the following criticism:

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A page from the quoted letter by General Don Carlos Buell.

“We are told that the saddle horse as a means of fashionable exercise is being discarded by many persons of both sexes for the use of the bicycle – that muscular exhibition which is neither graceful, nor always decent, nor conducive to the best physical development and probably in the end will prove hurtful to all habitual riders, especially women. It is the most thorough leveler and vulgarizer that ever laid hold upon society. All men, and women, and boys, are physically and socially equal on the bicycle.

Still, I am not surprised at its popularity. It is virtually accessible to all classes; and the gliding, rapid motion, and the ease with which the apparently difficult feat of riding is mastered, gives it a fascination which attracts all sorts of people.”

Especially interesting is the claim that bicycling is “indecent” – a common criticism at the time, and not unrelated to Buell’s other claims that bicycling is, in some negative sense, a “leveler” and a cause of social and economic equality between the ages and sexes. As well, the letter illustrates a now-displaced negative attitude towards the kind of intensive exercise and exertion one might experience while riding a bicycle.

Both the letter and the L.A.W. program pre-date the introduction of the mass-produced automobile. Even as we can see that Buell was representative of a fading society in which horses were key to transportation (and status), the bicycle itself, which helped pave the roads on which the automobile would find its great success, was soon threatened, and for some decades in the 20th Century was relegated to the status of children’s toy or last transportation resort. Further bicycle booms in the 1970s and in the last decade have introduced new generations of Americans to bicycling as a sporting endeavor and a casual pursuit. Perhaps in the end General Buell was right, despite his tone, and the bicycle has even acted, and can continue to act, as a leveler and tool of social and economic equality.

Portions of General Buell's original letter of November 22nd, 1896 follow.

Aaron Rosenblum

Aaron Rosenblum is an Associate Curator of Special Collections at The Filson Historical Society.

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