Overtaken by the automobile: The precarious situation for cycling in the US

Duncan R. Jamieson
Ashland University

Robert J. Turpin
First Taste of Freedom: A Cultural History of Bicycle Marketing in the United States
287 pages, paperback, ill.
Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press 2018 (Sports and Entertainment)
ISBN 978-0-8156-3591-8

I’m fairly certain I am correct in assuming that anyone reading this review can remember the sense of freedom and independence felt when the training wheels came off and you rode your bicycle for the first time beyond the sight of your home.  That feeling looms large in Robert Turpin’s analysis of bicycle marketing in the United States.  Following a brief and accurate history of the early days of two-wheeled, self-propelled vehicles, Turpin focuses on the rises and falls of bicycle usage and ridership in American society over the past century and a half.  When the high wheel or ordinary bicycle appeared in the United States in the 1870s, young athletically inclined men quickly took to it, riding in both city and countryside.  Because of its precariousness, few older men or women took up cycling, though the appearance of the tricycle shortly after offered them opportunities for exploration, exercise and adventure.  In the 1880s the diamond frame bicycle with similar sized wheels burst on the scene, encouraging men and women of all ages to mount one and enjoy the pleasure of independent travel.  Price, however, limited ownership to those with the means to afford one.

Cycle historians view the huge expansion of bicycle sales in the United States during the last few years of the nineteenth century as “the bicycle boom.”  By the turn of the twentieth century the bubble had burst and bicycle sales fell precipitously. For decades people have erroneously credited the collapse to the rise of the automobile; if that were the case, however, the drop would have taken place a few decades later.  As Turpin points out, it was due to a sharp price reduction for new bicycles and a huge supply of used wheels available cheaply.  No longer viewed as a status symbol, available only to the well-to-do, once the masses had access, the bicycle lost its cachet.  Once seen as a symbol of power and manliness, it now became the lowly bicycle.  As the first decades of the 20thcentury saw the production and sale of automobiles grow, they became the new symbol of wealth and conspicuous consumption. This created a continuing crisis for American manufacturers of bicycles as well as parts suppliers, all of which had to scramble to try to regain market share.  Bicycle executives found themselves seeking a new market to regain economic strength, which led them over several decades to appeal to a juvenile audience.  The bicycle, once a pillar of movements like muscular Christianity and the strenuous life, had become a child’s toy. This created a conundrum: how to continue to appeal to adult consumers when the emphasis was on marketing a toy for children?

Another issue raised by Turpin is gender bias. Clearly while some women rode ordinaries, they were exceptionally difficult to mount decorously in the dress styles of the 1870s.  The arrival in the late 1880s of the woman’s safety, identifiable then and today by having a drop tube rather than the top tube on the men’s bicycle. While this made it easier for women to mount, as Elizabeth Robins Pennell, the most prolific author of articles and books on bicycle travel at the time, it still did little to accommodate the dresses women wore.  Mrs. Pennell rode thousands of miles with her husband, lithographer Joseph Pennell, first on tandem tricycles and then a tandem bicycle before shifting to separate safety bicycles.  She noted the industry’s lack of interest in women consumers as it did little to meet their needs.  Further the manufacturer emphasized the manliness of the bicycle, how it developed the male physique and stood for male identity.  Until the 1970s, when Georgina Terry introduced a line of bicycles that were proportioned appropriately for women, they had to deal with ill-fitting bicycles.

A continuing debate among cyclists of any era is where to ride?  Before the Good Roads Movement, begun by the League of American Wheelmen but coopted and completed by the automobilists, had any impact on road conditions, cyclists demanded and in some instances built their own side paths.  These offered cyclists a smooth, paved surface on which to ride for pleasure or travel.  In some places hundreds of miles of side paths connected towns and cities for the cyclists.  Once automobile use began to grow exponentially, governments at the local, state and federal level took over the responsibility of maintaining quality roads, which often resulted in the disappearance of most side paths.  True, cyclists could ride on the highways, but at their own peril.  As automobiles became larger and faster they presented a lethal threat to cyclists. This also presented a dilemma for marketing bicycles to children; where were they to ride?  Since bicycles were classed as vehicles most municipalities did not permit them on the sidewalks meant for pedestrians, and as roads were recognized as dangerous, parents were reluctant to allow them to ride there.

Until the 1970s, when Georgina Terry introduced a line of bicycles that were proportioned appropriately for women, they had to deal with ill-fitting bicycles.

During both of the world wars there was an upsurge in bicycle sales to adults, in part because they provided an alternative means of transportation, and in part because of the patriotic fervor of saving necessary materials for the war effort.  By the 1940s, however, compared with English and European models, American bicycles were heavy and clunky with balloon tires that increased rolling resistance, requiring the rider to expand significantly more energy. The Englishman Bernard Newman, who over a thirty year period beginning in the early 1930s bicycled through every European country, came to the United States during the war on a mission for the British government.  He noted the paucity of available bicycles while complaining that those he could ride did not in any way compare to the series of bicycles he normally rode.  Then, following the end of hostilities, any gains in adult sales soon evaporated.  In the 1950s, however, the industry got a major boost during the Eisenhower administration.  First The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 expanded the growth of suburbia while taking cars off other roads.  This provided safe places for kids to ride their bicycles. Second, Eisenhower’s interest in physical fitness, further publicized by his personal physician, Paul Dudley White, emphasized the bicycle as health giving exercise for young and old alike.  As Turpin writes “while they had once competed for the same business, bicycles and cars had become two completely different objects used for entirely different ends” (191).  A renewed interest in bicycling developed in the 1970s, associated with environmentalism and health and fitness.  Soon however, most of the European style touring bicycles became garage bikes as the more relaxed and “user friendly” mountain bikes took over.

In conclusion, this is an interesting addition to the growing bibliography of books connected to various aspects of the bicycle in American society.  Turpin might have focused a bit more clearly on the business of marketing and advertising, and he needs to take into consideration population expansion when using graphs and tables.  Selling a million bicycles in 1897 America is quite different from selling a million bicycles in 1977 America, when the population had grown by well over three hundred percent.

The following is not at all a criticism of Turpin but rather a thought for future comparative research.   Bicycles appeared in the industrialized West in the second half of the nineteenth century.  Ridership grew as new designs and technological advances increased safety, comfort, reliability and speed for riders on both sides of the Atlantic, but Europeans never saw the fall off of interest in bicycling that all but crippled interest in the United States.  In 2018 the American attitude toward the bicycle as an alternative to the automobile of mass transit continues to improve yet remains woefully inadequate compared to Great Britain and the continent.  In 1905 when H. G. Wells wrote that “cycle tracks will abound in Utopia,” he certainly was not referencing the United States.  Bicycles are far more accepted in Europe, whereas as Turpin shows, despite limited though growing adult usage they still remain to most Americans a child’s toy, and no longer a step toward a driver’s license. Turpin’s compelling argument that the availability of bicycles for the masses was its downfall does not seem to have impacted European markets.  A comparative study on bicycle use from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries on both sides of the Atlantic might be a fascinating study for scholars.

Copyright © Duncan Jamieson 2018

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