Bicycles = Liberation

From the 1880s to the 1910s, Americans took to the wheel, sparking a nationwide bicycle craze. In the era before automobiles, bicycles were a means of affordable personal mobility. Americans awheel went to new places and felt differently about themselves.

Take a closer look at three of the innovative things on view in this section.

Celebrating New Freedoms

Sheet music, 1890s–1910s

Sheet music, 1897

In the 1890s the cycling craze gave a boost to the “rational clothing” movement that encouraged women to shed long, cumbersome skirts and bulky underpinnings; a few wore bloomers, but most opted for slightly shorter skirts.

Heading out, Nebraska, 1907

Bicycles offered women mobility, independence, and a way out. For many—like this woman heading off to work beyond the confines of home and farm—the bicycle was, according to one observer in 1896, “a steed upon which they rode into a new world.”

Notice her lunchbox.

Out After Dark

Bicycle lamps, 1880s–1890s

Touch the green arrow.

Manual for women cyclists, 1895

Notice the setting sun and the glowing lamp on her bicycle.

Coed cyclists, 1910s

Young adults rode their bicycles far from the front-porch oversight of parents and nosy neighbors, challenging—and eventually disrupting—conventions of inter-gender socializing, including courtship. And with bicycle lamps, both men and women were free to pedal off to socialize unsupervised even after sunset.

Lamps often had red and green side lenses, designating left and right, just as on watercraft.

Ad, 1899

One common bicycle lamp burned kerosene via a cotton wick. Another burned acetylene gas produced when water in a controlled drip from the upper chamber of the lamp moistened crystals of calcium carbide in the lower chamber; gas flowed through a small burner jet. Both forms were lit with a match; a reflector behind the flame and a lens in front helped intensify and focus the light.

Breaking Records

Bicycle racing medals, 1883–1897

Touch the green arrow!

World champion, 1899

In 1896, Marshall “Major” Taylor sprinted through the color barrier in professional bicycle racing—a wildly popular sport at the time. He was the fastest cyclist in the United States from 1897 to 1900, and the second African American to win a world championship title in sports.

The Boston Pursuit cycling team, 1897

Ad from The Colored American, 1901

(Courtesy of Library of Congress)

Note the focus on interracial competition. Taylor had been a member of the first-ever integrated professional sports team.