Glenn Uminowicz - July 2009
Bicycle Mania on the Shore
Save time, money and doctors’ bills. Go where you please, when you please, as fast as you please. Find pleasure, health and economy all in one.
– From an Easton newspaper advertisement for the Rambler bicycle in 1895.
The Shannahan & Wrightson Hardware Company began selling bicycles in 1893. Two years later, the firm established a bicycle department in its Easton store. As were all the models they offered, the Rambler was a “safety bicycle,” a style that had displaced the older high-wheeled “Ordinary.” On a safety, the rider sat lower behind the front wheel and was less prone to taking a “header” over the handlebars. The safety also featured advanced gearing and pneumatic tires that made pedaling easier and riding more comfortable.
Shannahan & Wrightson’s decision to sell “wheels” proved to be sound business practice. In the 1890s, a bicycle craze swept across the nation. In 1884, Americans purchased an estimated twenty thousand machines. In 1895, that figure reached ten million. Moreover, selling for as much as $150 each, bicycles were a high-end product, costing the equivalent of four months’ wages for a factory worker. Since demand far outstripped supply, bicycle manufacturers had little incentive to lower prices, and both they and their dealers enjoyed hefty profits.
What was the appeal of cycling? In A Social History of the Bicycle (1972), Robert A. Smith observed that the bicycle craze turned out to be “a grand and glorious debauch in speed and freedom, the likes of which Americans had never seen.” As a Shannahan and Wrightson ad suggested, a bicycle permitted Eastern Shore residents to go where they pleased, when they pleased, and as fast as they pleased. In addition, cycling was enjoyable, endorsed by physicians as a healthful activity, and a cheaper form of transportation than a horse and carriage.
Bicycle manufacturers paved the way for Americans’ love affair with the automobile. Their manufacturing innovations included extensive use of assembly line production and reliance on subcontractors to supply essential parts. They engaged in aggressive marketing campaigns, including what we would today call product placement, in fiction published in major magazines. They also recognized the advertising potential in bicycle racing.
For young “scorchers,” the lure of speed on the bicycle track proved irresistible. In 1895, bicycle clubs in Federalsburg, Easton, Cambridge, Salisbury and Chestertown joined forces to form the Eastern Shore Racing Circuit, competing for a championship cup crafted by Easton jeweler G.F. Sturmer.
In addition to races on the circuit, clubs participated in meets staged during county fairs and Fourth of July celebrations. All the races were conducted under rules established by the League of American Wheelmen (LAW), an organization founded in 1880 to “promote the general interests of bicycling,” including touring and racing.
In 1895, bicycle racing stood among the major attractions at the Talbot County Fair. All divisions of racers sanctioned by the LAW were represented. “Class A” riders were pure amateurs, competing for prizes and covering their own expenses. “Class B” cyclists might be classified as semi-pros, looking to ride for personal gain. Finally, the professionals raced for cash. In reality, the designation of amateur status was a bit of a subterfuge. Local newspapers reported the cash value of Class A and B prizes. At the 1895 Talbot County Fair, for example, Class A and B cyclists competed for diamond studs valued at $20 and gold rings valued at $10. The professionals competed for cash prizes ranging from $4 to $12.
Racing revealed one of the least admirable aspects of the bicycle craze. African-American riders were systematically excluded or discouraged from participating in meets. There were, however, exceptions to efforts at discouraging African-American racing. In 1899, a local fraternal organization in Federalsburg organized a Fourth of July celebration that included the “largest meet for colored riders ever held in Maryland.” The crowd was nominally integrated, although the grandstand was “reserved for white visitors.” Whites enjoyed displays of athletic prowess by black racers as long as they occurred in the bicycle equivalent of the later Negro Baseball League.
Segregation in cycling extended beyond the racetrack. At the annual convention of the LAW in 1894, delegates voted to insert the word “white” into the membership provision of their constitution. It was argued that the move would attract five thousand new members from Southern states. To his discredit, one of the Maryland delegates made the motion for the amendment.
In contrast to the African American experience, historians have long pointed to the liberating influence of the bicycle for Victorian women. The efforts of advocates of “rational dress” for women are often offered as evidence. In order to ride their cycles, some women cast off their corsets and donned bloomers, baggy pantaloons that were hardly form fitting.
The likelihood that the bicycle spawned a 19th-century feminist revolt was slim. First of all, bicycle makers saw women as a great untapped market and did not direct their advertising toward the relatively small number of bloomer girls. The Wanamaker Department Stores, for example, were among the most aggressive promoters of the sales of bikes, accessories and clothing. Wanamaker advertisements appeared weekly in Eastern Shore newspapers beginning in 1894. Three years later, the department store promoted a woman’s bicycle costume that included a “combination skirt.” The skirt was divided but had an “overlapping front width that disguises all likeness to bloomers.” The garment was perfect for the drop-frame ladies bicycles sold by Wanamaker and allowed for demur femininity once a lady dismounted.
Social commentators hailed the female cyclist in search of freedom and independence as an exemplar of the so-called “New Woman.” In 1897, a local newspaper published an essay by Miss Lucy Wheatley, who summered with friends at the estate named Plaindealing in Talbot County. Wheatley questioned if the “New Woman” even existed. She insisted, “I wish to say that the average woman of today may ride a wheel, may wish to manage her own bank account, and yet – give her a manly man for a husband, and she will prove to be as good and womanly as the woman of ages past.” Her conclusion reflected the lyrics of the popular tune A Bicycle Built for Two (1892) in which a young man’s proposal of marriage includes an invitation to his Daisy to pedal through life together.
As in major national magazines, the bicycle played a prominent role in fiction published in Eastern Shore newspapers, including stories involving gender issues. In 1896, for example, “A Psychic Cyclist” appeared in the Denton Journal. Heroine Kate Craig possesses an “intuitional knowledge of character, a truly psychic sense.” She has honed her skills about discerning the truth about an individual at a “psychomotric class” where she learned to use objects touched by a person to heighten her perceptions.
Over her summers, Kate, who is a school teacher, stays at the country home of the family of her friend Solina Payton. She learns that Solina will marry Fitz-Maurice Rodney the next day, a man who “not only looked well, but his manners were excellent.” Rodney was closing a business deal with Mr. Payton.
Kate senses something is amiss. She discovers a ribbon owned by Rodney, holds it to her forehead and envisions a man and woman at a tavern thirty miles away, possibly a wedded couple. She mounts her trusty bicycle and furiously pedals to the tavern, where she discovers Rodney’s wife. The two women cycle back the thirty miles to stop Solina’s wedding, followed by a mysterious wheelman. They enter the Payton house followed by the wheelman, who “stealthily appears from the shrubbery.” They are too late, as the wedding has already taken place. Mrs. Rodney denounces Fitz-Maurice as a bigamist. The wheelman reveals himself as a detective and attempts to arrest the groom for a past burglary. Overcome by “wifely fidelity” despite being wronged, Mrs. Rodney attempts to aid her husband by hurling “a heavy porcelain vase at the officer’s head, but luckily her aim was bad.” In the end, the miscreant Rodney sits in prison, reflecting on being “ruined by a woman.”
The “Psychic Cyclist” is a quintessential Victorian morality tale. In the mid-19th century, a mastery of the rules of etiquette was regarded as the “dress of character.” By the 1890s, however, Victorians understood that “painted ladies” and “confidence men” might also master the customs of polite society to pursue their own evil ends. Kate’s “intuitional knowledge of character” proved a perfect vehicle to unmask Fitz-Maurice Rodney as a confidence man. Her means of riding to the rescue of the Paytons – the bicycle she used to enjoy long summer rides in the country. Far from being a tool of the new woman, the bicycle upheld the integrity of marriage and the domestic sphere.
Like Victorian values, the popularity of the bicycle waned in the early 20th century. Overproduction resulted in a steep drop in prices and profits. By 1898, Wanamaker’s offered new wheels for $20 to $50. One year later, a used bicycle at a Ridgely carriage shop could be had for $5 and up. As John Wanamaker observed, the bicycle bubble had burst, with one-third of its manufacturers going out of business. Americans’ desire to go where, when, and how fast they pleased was redirected toward the automobile. The “mechanical steed” that attracted scorchers, tourists, business travelers and Victorian ladies was relegated to a children’s toy.