The “Exhilarating Effect of Wiry Transit”: America’s Nineteenth-Century Cycling Boom
As the Boston bike share program, Hubway, settles in for its third successful season of supporting urban cyclists, other cities around the country are rolling out their own infrastructure – encouraging more city dwellers to pick the efficient, environmentally-friendly mode of transportation. While bicycling is not an option for everyone, bike share stations make it possible to combine a bike ride with walking and public transit in flexible, efficient ways. As a first-time Hubway participant, I am re-leaning my adopted city (and the rules of the road!) this summer from the seat of what was once called “the safety bicycle.”
The safety bicycle, developed in the 1880s and popularized in the 1890s, was designed with two wheels of the same size. It was easier to ride and less dangerous than previous models. It was also a model of bicycle marketed to women as well as men. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw a boom in cycling for utilitarian transport and for pleasure. The Massachusetts Historical Society’s collection documents some of the ways in which the popularity of cycling made its mark on Boston. For example, in 1886 Geo. H. Walker & Co. published a Bicycling and Driving Road Map of Boston and Vicinity, the title of which prioritizes cyclists over those new-fangled motorcars.
We also hold a copy of the 1880 volume Lyra Bicyclica: Forty Poets on the Wheel, published in Boston and edited by one J.G. Dalton. Dalton prefaces the poems included therein with the autobiographical note, “The author-compiler is one of the very first Bostonians to ride and write into notice the bicycle in this country.” He goes on to describe how “under the early exhilarating effect of the wiry transit … he called upon our native poets … to favor us with a song or two for the new move, declaring that its peculiar charms and potencies and awaited an adequate celebration” (1-2).
One such song, albeit written in 1879, comes down to us as a specimen of sheet music in four-part harmony written by Thomas Keith. The three-verse ode begins:
Come ye whose sore and weary feet
With corns and blisters walk the street;
Come mount with us this easy seat
And ride in a way that can’t be beat.
We match for speed the fleeting wind,
The lagging coach leave far behind.
With wheel and axle underpin’d,
We ask no favors of that kind.
Then mount with us this easy seat,
And ride in a way that’s fun complete.
A cordial welcome all shall greet,
Who undertake to learn this feat.
Our family papers document members’ participation in the League of American Wheelmen, Harvard’s competitive collegiate cycling team of 1888-1901, and include photographs of women and men, girls and boys, posing proudly with their bicycles. I am sure our nineteenth-century predecessors would be asking us what took us so long to re-discover the “exhilarating effect of the wiry transit.”
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