19th Century,  Research

When Society Rolled on Two Wheels

An object we treat casually today was, at one time, a craze that influenced the way people lived. It changed their thinking.

Kids can’t wait to get that new two-wheeler bike and learn to ride. Sometimes, they need training wheels or a hand on the back of the seat to keep them steady until they learn to balance. Some reach the pedals with their toes. My dad taped blocks to the pedals until my legs grew longer.

They graduate from a Big Wheel or a tricycle to a two-wheeler suited to their age and size. It’s become a right of passage. I still remember the Christmas Santa brought my first full-sized Schwinn—blue and white, and with a button to sound a buzzer. Do you remember your first bike?

While, today, we take their presence for granted just as we do the automobile, there was a time when bicycles, like cars, created quite a stir in people’s lives. The invention of the safety bicycle—the two-wheeled variety—changed the culture of the late 1800s.

  • Transportation – People discovered they could travel quite a bit faster on a bicycle than they could walking. They also started clamoring for better roads throughout the country. Washboard roads were not fun to ride on. In some ways, the bicycle was a social equalizer. Those who couldn’t afford to keep a horse and carriage found they could travel in a less expensive way.
  • Inventions – At first, wooden wheels were used as tires. In the early 1890s the pneumatic tire was invented. It made the ride a bit smoother over those rutted roads of the day and tended to last longer than the previous all-rubber tires.
  • Health – This was a devisive issue. Those who advocated the bicycle also advocated its advantages when it came to exercise and mental health. Those who opposed the contraption pointed out things like “bicycle _______” (name the body part—eye, wrist, hand, face) and “bicycle hump” (caused when the rider is humped over the handlebars). Of course, there was always the danger of being thrown.
  • Clothing – Women, in particular, found the costume required for wheeling to be agreeable. While riding, they were freed from the breath-stealing corset. Skirt hems were raised to calf-length and split. it was dangerous to ride in the long skirts of the times as the material could get caught up in the chain. Then came the controversial bloomers—poofy pants that buttoned just below the knee—and men’s knickerbockers. From cap to boot, bicycle costumes brought change to the way men and women dressed.
  • Morals – Since many people rode on Sundays, a number of them in bicycle clubs, some congregations worried that people would put the bicycle before church attendance. Women and men began riding together without the presence of a chaperone, and some women used the bicycle as a symbol of freedom from the strictures of convention.

The information above came from a variety of sources, much of it from a wonderful book by Robert A. Smith called The Social History of the Bicycle, ©1972 by American Heritage Press. I’ll be using some of these tidbits in my latest project set in 1895.


So tell me about your first bicycle. What was it like? Do you still ride? What products of today have had a similar impact in changing the way we live?

As an author of heartwarming historical and contemporary romance, Sandra Ardoin engages readers with page-turning stories of love and faith. Rarely out of reach of a book, she's also an armchair sports enthusiast, country music listener, and seldom says no to eating out.

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