Two hundred years of the bicycle in America.
In her sprightly debut history, Guroff (Writing/Johns Hopkins Univ.), executive editor of AARP The Magazine, traces America’s “on-again, off-again romance” with the bicycle, from its 1819 iteration as the draisine to the current vogue in urban bike-sharing stations. Invented in Germany by Karl von Drais, the draisine was a two-wheeled vehicle with no pedals. A rider “straddled the saddle, gripped the tiller, and propelled the draisine like a scooter,” pushing off the ground and allowing it to coast. Unwieldy and heavy, the draisine quickly lost appeal. Some 50 years later, though, the pedal-cranked velocipede became a national obsession. “Nationwide,” writes the author, “carriage makers were churning out bicycles at a rate of a thousand a week, which reportedly filled only one-tenth of the orders being placed for them.” But this fad fizzled because they could only be ridden comfortably on indoor rinks; roads were so rutted that bicycles earned the epithet “boneshakers.” After pneumatic tires and lighter weight made the machines easier to ride, cyclists created cinder- or gravel-covered paths, many of which later were paved over for cars. Still, interest waned in the 1890s but was spurred when magazines created a voracious consumer culture. Once marketed and bought by men, bicycles became coveted by women, who saw in them potential for liberation, including liberation from corsets and floor-length skirts. Beginning in the 1910s, suburban children were identified by bicycle manufacturers as a rich new market. A boy with a bicycle, touted one ad, “will be the king of the neighborhood.” Guroff makes a solid case for the bicycle as transformative in times of war (it was useful during World War I, for example, as “unobtrusive, gasoline- and forage-free transport”), and she maintains that bicycles inspired the Wright brothers in their airplane design.
A bright, enthusiastic cultural history.