Cruising through America’s cycling history with a digital scrapbook

It's that time of year when many D.C. commuters forgo their usual Metro rides and haul their bicycles out of storage or rent a bikeshare cruiser. This can only mean one thing: the return of spring weather and National Bike Month. What a perfect opportunity for a peek behind-the-scenes at the museum, where we are busy researching bicycling history for a hands-on "enchanted scrapbook" you'll be able to delve into this summer.

The team behind the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Project, a new activity-based learning space opening at the museum on July 1, is working on a unique way to explore the history of cycling in America. This activity, called Book of the Wheel, examines the interaction of people, bicycles, and social change in shaping everyday life in the 1880s and 1890s.

Layout of scrapbook pages

Book of the Wheel will use blank pages made of Tyvek, radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, image projection, and motion sensing technology to let visitors explore photographs, sheet music, newspaper clippings, postcards, advertisements, and other primary source materials. Each time a visitor turns a page, an RFID tag signals the projector and new content appears; surprises await visitors when they touch selected items on each page. (Think of the moving images found in newspapers and books in the Harry Potter series.)

Object Project team member Noelle Alvey is responsible for much of the primary source research involved in creating Book of the Wheel. Noelle says: "One of the most surprising parts of doing research for the book is seeing the explosion of bicycling at the turn of the 19th century: the number of social events, club meetings, and even the sheer number of photos people took with their bikes. The culture around bicycles at that time was huge, and we've seen a lot of club ephemera like pins, patches, ribbons, and membership cards."

Stereocard, club ribbon, League of American Wheelmen membership card

The history of cycling in America is a rich and complex one, with an incredible amount of material culture and ephemera. The more interesting artifacts the Object Project team discovered, the more difficult it became to figure out how to display many of them—especially in a way that would allow visitors to interact with these objects up-close-and-personal.

Looking at their growing collection of photographs, postcards, buttons, and other two-dimensional ephemera spread out on the table in front of them, Noelle and her colleagues realized that they had the makings of a scrapbook. They decided to present the materials as if they were assembled by a cycling enthusiast from the 1880s and 1890s; items are annotated with thoughts and observations drawn from original sources from the period.

The Cycle Parade March sheet music cover

The bicycle frenzy, beginning in the 1880s and peaking in the 1890s, was a nationwide phenomenon. Americans "took to the wheel" with widespread enthusiasm. Individuals and clubs created, saved, traded, and displayed all sorts of mementos and keepsakes that represented their passion for riding. Biking clubs had their own unique anthems, traditions, and cultures. Local clubs from around the nation would gather together for larger meets organized by the League of American Wheelmen, an organization established in 1880 to advocate for cyclists' rights and encourage camaraderie among them. Americans used this new invention to seek out greater liberation than ever before, as a tool for both mobility and community.

Three women with bicycles

One significant draw of the bicycle when it was first adopted was that it was truly for everyone. People of all classes owned and rode bicycles for both practical and recreational purposes. Women found new freedom through bicycles, as a means of personal transportation and as a leisure activity outside the home.

Photo of a small pin with an illustration of cyclist Marshall Major Taylor, wearing a red and blue cycling uniform

By making a digital scrapbook, the Object Project team is able to address the wide range of diversity found in the story of American cycling, as well as show a large volume of objects. Book of the Wheel gives a close-up look at a lot of interesting artifacts that otherwise might have been difficult to exhibit. Many of them are very small or made out of fragile paper, and the book makes it easier to view and interact with them.

Postcard and photograph of spring meet participants

And to help give Book of the Wheel an even more personal feel, Noelle says the team is looking at real scrapbooks in the museum's and other collections to draw inspiration for visual details. The goal is to make it appear accurate to the 1880s and 1890s, so research even involves noting the types of paper used, as well as how photos and other paper clippings were glued or tied in place.

You'll be able to explore Book of the Wheel and cycling in America when the Taylor Foundation Object Project opens on July 1. In the meantime, however, we hope you get out there and enjoy some fresh air, physical activity, and community during National Bike Month!

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. Previously, she has blogged about Tabasco sauce and teaching collection objects.