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History repeats itself

May 20, 2013

BDE1894 has a feature by Daniel London titled “Cycles of Fashion” that’s an informative look at the rise and fall of the bicycle craze of the late 19th century.  This passage will certainly resonate for anyone who follows the debate over cyclist behavior, the language of the tabloids, and, yes, the extreme sanctimony of some cycling advocates:

“Scorching,” or riding extremely fast, was seen as not only dangerous, but a sign of low-class loutishness. The New York Times reported that ”with the cheapening in the cost of bicycle riding in the public streets has come the abuse of that privilege by thousands of ignorant and loaferish individuals… irresponsible and reckless young men to whom a stable keeper would not entrust a saddle horse, and who are not fit to ride anything but a rail.” Several dozen cycling schools and innumerable etiquette guides were produced which would help the wheeled bourgeoisie not only learn to ride, but “ride right.”

The bicycle was a private vehicle in public space, and hence a topic of moral and political import. Opponents of the bicycle claimed that the wheel undermined morality (amongst other things, by enabling young women to venture great distances without supervision), caused noise and interfered with traffic. Conversely, bicyclists claimed that “the more ignorant, uncultured, and generally illiterate and ‘countrified’ the man is, the more bitter is his hatred of the bicycle”—and lobbied for bike-friendly legislation, paved roads and additional bicycle lanes. (Sound familiar?)


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