A nattily attired rider aboard a high-wheeler bike in the Czech Republic.
A nattily attired rider aboard a high-wheeler bike in the Czech Republic. Petr David Josek/AP

In its early history, the bicycle was celebrated—and condemned—for disrupting social barriers and bringing the classes together.

The doctor was appalled. Two young women “of irreproachable character and social standing” had befriended two “well-dressed damsels” while out riding bikes. The four friends met up for rides for a few weeks, until it was discovered that the well-dressed damsels “were none other than a pair of nymphs de pave”—streetwalkers.

The clear lesson, according to this Louisville physician, writing in an 1897 medical journal: Women should never ride bikes.

At the time, though, it was hard to keep women—and men—off bikes. North American and European cities were in the grips of a major bicycle boom at the end of the 19th century. Though clunky two-wheelers had been invented in the 1860s, and towering high-wheelers (what we now call “penny-farthings”) had appeared in the 1870s, it wasn’t until the early 1890s that so-called safety models made the bicycle practical to ride for people without a young man’s strength and agility. These safeties boasted hip-high wheels with air-filled tires that cushioned the ride on cobbled or unpaved streets; they looked a lot like modern commuter bikes.

At first, the new machines were only for the rich: An early safety might cost $150, at a time when the average worker earned $12 per week. But demand goosed supply, and by the mid-1890s, the average price for a safety bicycle was $75 and falling. Millions of women and men of all ages took up cycling, and the vehicles flooded city streets, vying for space with pedestrians, horse-drawn carts, and electric streetcars. “The bicycle crowd has completely subjugated the street,” wrote the novelist Stephen Crane in 1896 of the scene north of New York’s Columbus Circle. “The glittering wheels dominate it from end to end.”

Crane was an early observer of the 19th-century version of the bikes-vs-cars conflict: In downtown Manhattan, where cyclists had to labor over rough cobblestones, irritated wagon drivers would try to run them down. But among the cycling throngs on the smooth asphalt of Western Boulevard (now northern Broadway), those same aggressive drivers could only look on in frustration as the cyclists whizzed past: “This roaring lion from down town is so subdued, so isolated that he brings tears to the sympathetic eye.”

Boosters lauded the cycle’s health benefits, its ability to connect city-dwellers with the natural beauty of the countryside, its utility for commuting in town. In addition, many saw the bike as a democratizing force. “The bicycle is indeed the great leveler,” reported The Century magazine in 1894. “It puts the poor man on a level with the rich, enabling him to ‘sing the song of the open road’ as freely as the millionaire.” As the Minneapolis Tribune stated in 1895, “On a rubber-shod mount, the gamin of the gutter is the equal of the alderman or the street commissioner.” And that, for many, was a problem.

(New York Public Library)

Traditional rules of decorum prevented well-bred people from conversing with strangers on the street, but—as our Louisville doctor noted with alarm—those rules were abandoned among cyclists. This familiarity had suited early enthusiasts, who saw the cycle’s high price as a barrier to entry for undesirables. As one Connecticut cyclist wrote in 1882, “No friendships among young men are warmer or more lasting than those brought about by the fraternity of the wheel.... The bicyclers of England and America are a superior class of men.” But in the 1890s, when cycling became more affordable and hence more available to office clerks and laborers, the bike’s challenge to social barriers felt less affirming to many on the snooty side of the fence. Explains Lorenz J. Finison, author of Boston’s Cycling Craze, 1880–1900, “Professional men would bike to get out of the city, into the fresh air and particularly beyond all the hordes of immigrants who were flooding the area. And then, lo and behold, they found these same folks were following them out on bicycles.”

One marker of class anxiety among privileged cyclists: In 1894, the League of American Wheelmen, a powerful national group that sponsored races and lobbied for cyclists’ interests, voted to oust its non-white members.

By the end of the 1890s, the bike boom was over, a casualty in part of the bike’s own ability to bust social barriers. Though many working Americans continued using bicycles to commute or make deliveries, the well-to-do riders who had ignited and fueled the craze abandoned the sport as it became less elite. “One element that detracted from the popularity of the sport was the rowdies,” a former president of the Illinois Cycling Club told the Chicago Tribune in 1902. “They would go on country runs and insist on storming hotels and eating in their sweaters” rather than dressing for the meal like a gentleman, he reported. The bike had become déclassé, a status it retained for much of the following century.

Today, the bicycle has regained favor among well-off urbanites, and cycle advocates are once again touting this simple machine’s power as an equalizing force. Cycling can improve public health and make commuting faster and cheaper for many city dwellers, they say, provided neighborhoods have safe cycling routes like protected lanes. But opposition to the construction of such lanes often erupts along class lines: Some residents of lower-income neighborhoods oppose bike lanes as harbingers of gentrification; elsewhere, bike-lane opponents complain that the lanes are used only by undocumented immigrants or “delivery boys” rather than neighborhood residents. The unifying objection is that the lanes are being built for someone else, a different kind of someone.

It’s an attitude that would feel familiar to the cyclists of the 1890s, whose aggressive lobbying for better roads led to using taxpayer funds for road improvements—and helped usher in the asphalt pavements that many city drivers seem to feel are theirs to use exclusively. (Those 19th-century cyclists overcame opposition from some urban parents, who favored traffic-calming bumpy cobbles rather than smooth pavement that could draw speeding bikers.)

As today’s cyclists push to reclaim a share of the roads their predecessors helped pave, it’s worth remembering both the hopes and fears of equality that the early bike engendered. Our country feels particularly divided at present, and we’re perhaps especially vulnerable to seeing a benefit for one group of people as a loss for everyone else. But there’s another way to look at things, a more egalitarian way. A well-designed street can work for all users, and everyone can be better off if everyone is served.

In a 1896 story on the democratizing power of the bicycle, Scientific American observed that when “all are on equal terms, all are happier than ever before.” The bicycle, the journal stated, had finally realized “the great American principle that every man is just as good as any other man, and generally a little better.”

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