Bike Tour Meanders through the 19th Century New York Exhibit Follows Bicycle's Route from Elite Toy to Symbol of Freedom

By Nicole Gaouette, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 25, 1996 | Go to article overview

Bike Tour Meanders through the 19th Century New York Exhibit Follows Bicycle's Route from Elite Toy to Symbol of Freedom


Nicole Gaouette, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The wheel might be humanity's greatest invention, but consider an equally revolutionary idea: balancing on two of them. Today, the bicycle is an everyday part of work and leisure worldwide, but at the beginning of the 19th century, it was a revelation.

An exhibit at New York's Paine Webber Art Gallery called "Bicycles: History, Beauty, Fantasy," which runs through Oct. 4, explores the development of the bicycle from its debut in the early 19th century to the dawn of the automobile age at the beginning of this century. The show uses antique bicycles, photographs, posters, and cycle paraphernalia to lovingly detail the bicycle's evolution, not only as a piece of engineering and design, but also as a force for social change.

"It's universal," says curator Pryor Dodge of the bicycle's appeal. "For children, balancing on their own gives a real sense of accomplishment, and once you get the training wheels off, you're free. It gives people their first sense of power."

Freedom and power are strong themes in the exhibit and are often reflected in early designs that incorporated animal and bird motifs. At first a toy for the fashionable elite, the bicycle became an affordable and easy way for Europeans and Americans who did not own a horse or carriage to move around. As the world's "first democratic means of transportation," the bicycle also helped liberate another social class: women.

The bicycle offered women freedom from domesticity, isolation, and the restrictions of constant chaperones who were unable to tag along on a bicycle ride. It also fueled a movement for women's "rational dress," eventually leading to freedom from suffocating corsets and heavy skirts that made any kind of physical exertion onerous.

"I think {bicycling} has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world," American suffragist Susan B. Anthony declared in 1896. "It gives women a freedom and self-reliance."

But as an invention, let alone as a tool for social change, the bicycle had a slow start. Its inventor, the German baron Karl von Drais, had to apply twice before receiving a patent for his "running machine" in 1818. His design consisted of two wooden wheels connected by a wooden beam topped by an upholstered seat. A rider would grip the handles, straddle the beam and, according to instructions in an 1819 Philadelphia paper, use "a propelling push with one foot, anon with another."

The "Draisine," its English cousin, the "hobby horse," and its French incarnation, the "Velocipede," caught aristocratic fancy across Europe and in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, where riding schools opened. …

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