Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Bicycles and Juvenile Masculinity during World War I

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Bicycles and Juvenile Masculinity during World War I

Article excerpt

Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, the bicycle was extremely popular. By 1900, however, sales in the United States experienced a dramatic fall. After coming to terms with the fact that the "Golden Age" of the bicycle was over, members of the bicycle industry undertook concerted efforts to recover sales. Those attempts included cooperative advertising and marketing efforts that might broaden the bicycle's appeal beyond upper- and middle-class men. At first, the industry turned to "society women." Women had actually taken to the bicycle a few decades earlier, but the industry had yet to concentrate advertising and marketing on females. Even after more attention was devoted to female riders in advertisements, there seemed to be little success in regaining womens enthusiasm. This is evident in how short-lived that campaign would be in comparison with the industry's next campaign-one that focused on a younger demographic.

This essay focuses on the bicycle industry's pursuit of juvenile consumers in the second and third decades of the twentieth century. It examines how anxieties aroused by World War I presented an opportunity to promote bicycles as beneficial for the nation. Attempts to exploit concerns about the nation's fitness were so successful that the industry continued appeals to juveniles' health, individualism, and patriotism well after the war was over. The connections the industry drew between these virtues and juveniles (specifically boys) left an indelible mark upon American ideals of mobility and masculinity. As a product of one of the first industries to base its marketing strategies on the emerging child consumer, the campaign to link bicycles with boys offered an example of how significant juvenile consumers had become. The strategies the industry employed to capture the interest of juveniles reveal the social and cultural ideals that guided childrens entrance into American consumer society.

Richard Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears have argued that the genesis of American consumerism sprang from the preoccupations of white elite adults (1983, x). It would not take long, however, before American children also embraced values of consumerism. Steven Mintz shows that manufacturers soon marketed toys directly to children, but this development occurred earlier than he suggests. Whereas Mintz locates it in the late 1920s (2004, 217), Lisa Jacobson provides evidence that the targeting of child consumers began as early as 1911. By that time, children's magazines such as American Boy "were trumpeting the untapped potential of the boy market and the dynamic salesmanship of the boy consumer in the advertising press.... During the interwar years ... the child consumer became the focus of... advertising campaigns for everything from breakfast cereal and toys to big-ticket items such as radios and automobiles" (Jacobson 2004, 16-17). Such attempts to appeal directly to children were rife among marketing strategies of the bicycle industry even before the United States entered World War I.

Jacobson acknowledges that the 1920s were a "major turning point in the field" as even the advertising trade itself, not just children's magazines, "s[a]ng the praises of the child consumer" (28). The bicycle industry followed a similar path, at first experimenting with children's advertisements in the first half of the 1910s. By the 1920s, it was poised to go all in. Jacobson argues that general marketing to boys marked a "privileging of boy culture" in a manner that offered psychic rewards to advertisers and that more overt appeals to boys' consumer appetites demonstrated "advertisers' new assessment of boy culture" (105, 123). This essay complicates her argument by contending that, at least for bicycle marketing, boys were also targeted because they were convenient. Not only were boys thought to be enterprising consumers who actively influenced their peers, thereby increasing sales, they also provided an opportunity for broadening appeals without reimaging the product. …

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