A Bicycle Built for You

early bicycle instructionsThe first riding machine was invented in 1817. It was a crude conveyance, featuring two wheels, but no pedals, that a rider could steer while walking. Throughout the 19th century, new technological innovations ushered in a series of improved riding machines and bicycles. The first true bicycle fad began during the 1860s when the velocipede ("fast foot") was introduced. A two-wheeled riding machine made of stiff metals and with pedals added to the front wheel, these contraptions were better known as "boneshakers" because of their jolting rides over cobblestone roads.

After the velocipede came the ordinary bicycle of the 1870s-1880s. Called ordinaries, they had large front wheels that provided a smooth and efficient ride. Even so, these wheels might get caught in a rut or stopped by a stone in the road, causing riders to "take headers." These bicycles cost anywhere from $50 to $125, the equivalent of six months pay for many workers.

Restricted by bustles, long skirts, and corsets, women were unable to ride ordinaries, but they took advantage of tricycles, manufactured at first in the 1880s. Although tricycles were not very practical for riding, they nevertheless afforded women the opportunity to get some outdoor exercise and ride with others--all without a chaperone.

Better models soon followed. The premier bicycle manufacturer in America, Pope Manufacturing Co., pioneered many firsts in the 1880s and 1890s, including the coaster brake, and cushion and pneumatic tires. These advances made bicycles much safer, and as a result, more people took to riding. The "Golden Age of Bicycling" had begun!

drawing of 19th century woman and bicycleWith bicycles now easier to ride, more women wanted to participate, but their cumbersome clothing still remained an obstacle. Although many 19th-century reformers had been championing dress reform for women, the impetus to change women's fashion was motivated more by the sport of bicycling. Such new outfits as shorter skirts and lighter corsets as well as bloomers, introduced years before, came into vogue.

Not just a short-lived fad, bicycling brought about many long-term advantages, among them better roads. The lobbying efforts of bicycle leagues had a profound impact on America's burgeoning transportation system, in the end greatly benefiting the next advance in transport: the automobile.

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