Jul 28, 2014
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The Bicycle Craze of the 1890's

The bicycle craze swept through Minneapolis and influenced roads, clothes and social mores.

The Bicycle Craze of the 1890's The Bicycle Craze of the 1890's The Bicycle Craze of the 1890's The Bicycle Craze of the 1890's The Bicycle Craze of the 1890's The Bicycle Craze of the 1890's The Bicycle Craze of the 1890's The Bicycle Craze of the 1890's The Bicycle Craze of the 1890's

The first true bicycle was created in France in the 1860’s. Early bikes had enormous front wheels and were called ordinary bicycles or high wheels. Ordinary bicycles were dangerous due to their forward center of gravity. These bikes were ridden primarily by wealthy young men that were physically fit enough to take a “header” (the term used to describe when one flew over the front of the handlebars).

While large groups of people turned out to watch ordinary bicycle races, most were not willing to take the risk of riding a high wheel.

The invention of the “safety” bicycle in the 1880’s prompted a worldwide bicycle craze. The safety bicycle had two wheels of equal size and used a chain drive to prevent loss of speed. The design of the safety bicycle is the most direct ancestor of the bicycle most people use today. Without the dangers of being thrown over the handlebars from a great height, the idea of bicycling began to develop broader appeal.

By the 1890’s bicycle mania had fully taken hold in Minnesota. Throngs of bicycles were seen on the streets of downtown Minneapolis between the years of 1893 and 1897. Many used their bikes as transportation to work, as well as to theater shows and other events downtown. It also set the groundwork for much of the bicycling infrastructure in this still bike-crazy city, including trails all across Southwest Minneapolis.

During the craze the Minneapolis Tribune offered articles on worthwhile roads to tour, bicyclist first aid, bicycle stories and general bicycling advice. Social columns kept track of who had just purchased a bicycle, as well as who was learning to ride a bike and what injuries they had acquired in doing so. In an article on bicycle touring from 1895 the Tribune advised readers that when bicycling, “the first and most important thing to consider is company. Whether your party consists of 2 or 20, [if] there is a lack of congeniality, the tour is a failure.”

New language was invented to describe bikers. Fast bikers were called "scorchers" and bicyclists in general were called "wheelmen". 

Bicyclists formed the League of American Wheelmen in order to lobby for better conditions. Many of the first paved roads in the United States were paved to facilitate better bicycling conditions. In addition to promoting the interests of cycling, the League of American Wheelmen offered its members discounts on hotels and maps of worthwhile roads to tour.

While bicycles today don't need to be registered, during the 1890's a Bicycle Inspector was employed full time to register bikes and enforce cycling laws. Bicyclists were required to purchase annual tags for their bikes and during the craze the inspector was overburdened with work. In 1903 alone, tags for 30,000 bicycles were registered in the city of Minneapolis.

Bicycling was so convenient and popular that it began to negatively impact another mode of transportation, the streetcar. Streetcars had electrified in the Twin Cities only a year before the bicycle craze started and despite the better service and faster speed of electric streetcars the new fad caused a serious drop in ridership.

Streetcars weren’t the only business with dropping sales caused by bicycle mania. Businesses nationwide including tobacconists, hatters, tailors, theater owners, booksellers, and stable owners complained of losing income to the new fad of bicycling. 

In 1895, the Minneapolis Tribune reported that the bicycle craze had also impacted laundries. As more people rode bicycles to and from work, fewer people were wearing the fashion of highly starched shirts and collars that required laundering to maintain their appearance. As one laundryman said of his lost revenue, “this bicycle fad is costing us a great deal of money. We don’t have near as many starched pieces to launder.”

Fewer starched collars were one of a number of changes in fashion caused by bicycles. As more women began to use bicycles, new standards of appropriate dress were set, and women’s fashions began to allow for more comfortable riding.  Bloomers, loose pantaloons tied at the ankles, were among the more controversial new fashions.

In addition to more comfortable clothing, women’s ability to ride bicycles gave them greater freedom and mobility and was championed as a tool of liberation by feminists such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In 1896 Anthony said, “the bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world.”

Women made their mark in bicycle races such as centuries, which were 100 mile races. The Minneapolis Journal reported that Mrs. James McIlrath Jr. rode five consecutive centuries in just under 60 hours. At the time, they reported it, "the longest ride ever made by a lady."

In Minneapolis, many of the cycling paths built to accommodate the bike craze are still around today. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board built paths along Kenwood Parkway, Lake Harriet, and Minnehaha Creek in the 1890’s.

While the bicycle fad of the 1890’s eventually leveled off, there is no doubt that Minneapolitans still love their bicycles. On any nice day one can watch people of all ages ride clockwise around the Lake Harriet trail, which remains one of the busiest in the state.

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