The bicycle is making a comeback today largely because of its affordability, portability, and its ecological friendliness. In the late 19th century, when it was first introduced in America, the bicycle revolutionized the lives of ordinary citizens, especially women and African Americans. Sue Macy’s Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (with a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) charts the dramatic changes that resulted from the bicycle.
When you think about it, when we were kids, as soon as we could ride a bike our lives changed dramatically. We could ride to a friend’s house who lived two miles away instead of just playing a pick-up game of kickball with the neighborhood kids. We could ride to the Dairy Queen and buy an ice cream cone, ride to a piano lesson or football practice. It gave us independence, too.
For women at the end of the 19th century, one change set off many others. Not only could they get around freely and efficiently, but women also invented things to help them hold their skirts in place or carry groceries home, designed bloomers so they wouldn’t have to ride sidesaddle, and they could exercise. There were political debates about whether women should be allowed to ride. Some of the opposition was even led by other women! Charlotte Smith, for instance, fought for the rights of female workers for 15 years, but focused much of her wrath on the bicycle, calling it “the devil’s advance agent morally and physically in thousands of instances.” On the other hand, Albert Augustus Pope, the man who through his manufacturing and marketing innovations single-handedly propelled the bicycle to the peak of its popularity, took a stand (through his advertisements) in favor of bloomers. The bicycle may have gone out of favor in 1897, but the changes it helped bring about remain.
Learn more about the bicycle’s influence in this interview with author Sue Macy.