Bicycles have changed, but fellowship remains

One of the most popular photo opportunities in the museum's new innovation wing can be found in the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Projecta pair of high wheel bicycle models that visitors can try on for size. They're located in a section of the new learning space that explores how Americans used bicycles for personal liberation. A phenomenon that became a nationwide craze from the 1880s to the 1910s, bicycling was an affordable means of mobility, leisure, and freedom.

Visitors trying out the high wheel bike models in Object Project

I've tried hopping on these high wheel bicycles in the Taylor Foundation Object Project, and I find it hard to imagine balancing on one that's actually moving—especially one careening down the road at over 16 miles per hour! That is how fast the winner of a high wheel bike race in Frederick, Maryland, traveled around the course this past August.

Riders on their high wheel bicycles in Frederick, Maryland

Seeing these bicycles in motion for the first time not only made me grateful for the invention of the "safety" bicycle we're more familiar with today, but it also helped illustrate for me how bicycles—and cycling as a pastime—have evolved.

I watched each high wheel racer take a running start, then spring off a step above the small wheel to launch into the seat. To dismount, they basically reversed the process: step backwards and hop off while the bicycle is still moving, pulling it to a halt with their arms. I didn't witness any crashes but heard that one happened at another point on the course (the rider dislocated his shoulder). From watching these bikes in motion, it's pretty clear that riders have farther to fall than on a safety bicycle. In the 1880s, high wheel riding came with the risk of taking a "header": if the wheel hit an obstruction in the road, like a rock, branch, or pot hole, it could come to a sudden halt and pitch the rider over the handlebars.

Illustration of injuries that bicycling could cause

As Mark Twain remarked in his humorous 1893 essay "Taming the Bicycle," "Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live." He also recommended always dismounting the bicycle onto something soft, like a feather bed.

An 1896 woman's safety bicycle

After the heyday of high wheel bicycles in the 1880s, safety bicycles became the more popular design in the 1890s. Safeties were named for their improvement upon the more hazardous high wheels, which were then given the name "ordinaries" to distinguish between the two. The high wheel also had the more fanciful nickname of "penny-farthing," comparing its small and large wheels to those differently sized coins.

Side view of a rider on a high wheel bicycle

Unlike safety bicycles, high wheels lack a chain and gears. The size of your wheel depends on the length of your legs, and the pedals are attached directly to the large wheel. This means that you get one rotation of the wheel for every push of the pedal. Since one push means one revolution, the intended purpose of such a large wheel was to let riders travel farther, faster.

Penny stack at the Frederick high wheel bicycle race

Though the technological and mechanical aspects of bicycles have changed since the high wheel's prime, watching the race in Frederick made me think that the element of community around bicycling is not all that different. Before the race began, all of the nearly 30 riders participated in what is called a "penny stack." They lined up their high wheels next to each other in a row, and one by one each rider mounted a bicycle and grabbed the handlebar of his or her neighbor's bike. Once all the racers were atop their wheels, the bicycles balanced perfectly thanks to a strong line of support created by the riders' overlapping arms.

San Francisco bicycle club members riding high wheels

Such a sight at the 2015 gathering reminded me of 1800s images I've seen among the primary source materials for the Taylor Foundation Object ProjectFellowship, in the form of national clubs like the League of American Wheelmen as well as smaller local clubs, played a major role in the growth of the bicycle's popularity and use. One of the League's "Club Songs for Wheelmen" from 1885 went: "Now I am a bold Bicycler / And I ride a great big wheel / I'm a member of the brotherhood, / That binds us firm as steel."

The recent high wheel race in Frederick involved some competition, but it was clear that camaraderie was the main purpose of the day. After pedaling for an hour around a (very flat) course, the riders seemed to care less about who won and more about having a good time with fellow cyclists and spectators alike.

Caitlin Kearney is a new media assistant for the Taylor Foundation Object Project. She is a student in the Museum Studies program at The George Washington University. She has also blogged about a woman’s safety bicycle on display in Object Project.