Early Marketers Knew How to Sell Bicycles Built for Two

Article excerpt

A unique exhibit suggests that two-wheel transportation was sexier than Americans realize.

Americans long have been fascinated by transportation in all its modes, from the covered wagons of our pioneering ancestors to the airline industry today. So it's little wonder that the current exhibit at the Paine-Webber Gallery in New York, "Bicycles: History, Beauty, Fantasy", is drawing crowds daily. With the incessant noise and pollution generated by Manhattan's nonstop traffic, the bicycle appeals to America's nostalgia for a quieter, cleaner and healthier street life.

This exhibition makes fascinatingly clear that while the modes may have changed, the advertisers haven't. The message at the start of this century is identical to the message today: Sex sells.

The bicycle originally was considered the "first democratic means of transportation," a symbol of adventure for all types of people. The first versions were little more than wooden beams mounted atop two wooden wheels -- no pedals, no chains, no sprockets. Riders simply propelled themselves by pushing off the ground with their feet, which earned the device the name laufsmachine, or "running machine."

The French added pedals and cranks to the front wheels in the 1860s and the running machine was dubbed the "velocipede," which became known in the United States as the boneshaker" (The lack of hard-rubber wheels meant a jolting ride.)

Designers tinkered with the bicycle, coming up with complicated configurations that look as if they would break in two upon encountering a bump in the road. Braking presented a significant problem. Most systems used a cord that stretched from the handlebars to the rear wheels. By rotating the handlebars forward, the cord activated a small plate that rubbed against the wheel to stop it.

The high-wheel bicycle was an English invention, but for all its grace and beauty it presented a number of risks to late 19th-century riders. Their feet could not reach the ground while sitting in the saddle, so mounting and dismounting was accomplished while in motion. Poor roads could accidentally activate the brakes, throwing the rider over the handlebars. …