The History of the Bicycle

Among his many interests, Marriott C. Morris was a fan of bicycling. Whether playing with his children or taking extended trips, Morris had joined in on a craze that swept America and Europe in the late Victorian period. Interested in the many images of bicycles and bicycling parties within the Marriott C. Morris Collection, I decided to write up a quick history of the bicycle.

The first recognizable bicycle, with pedals and all, was invented around 1869 (bicycles sans-pedals, called Draisines or velocipedes, were invented as early as 1818). These original bikes were limited in how fast the wheels could rotate and were unaffectionately known as boneshakers, taken from the fact that their rigid frames and iron-banded or wooden wheels led to harsh, shaky rides. Understandably, they were not that popular. The first big innovation was the invention of the high-wheel bicycle, later known as the ordinary or the penny-farthing. The eponymous high wheel did not come in one standard size, but ranged from about forty to sixty inches. The wheel was fit to the rider’s leg length or their overall height. For example, one contemporary guide book recommended a forty-two inch wheel for a thirty inch leg or a man of five feet one inch. The wheel diameter increased by two inches for every one inch of leg height or every one and a half inch of overall height. Having a properly sized wheel was essential to mounting and correctly balancing the high-wheel.

These new bicycles had a few advantages. The lighter frames and big front wheel allowed for higher speeds and smoother rides. This was also helped by the addition of solid rubber tires, providing more cushion over bumpy roads. The downside to these machines came from how dangerous they were to ride. It was very easy to be sent over the front wheel from a hole in the road or a sudden stop, and the height made falls more deadly. This led to bicycling being the domain of young men.

Thankfully, however, not everyone was left out. Tricycles existed as early as the 1780s, popularized around the same time as bicycles, and were “designed for ladies and also for gentlemen who on account of age, timidity, or excessive weight, cannot ride a bicycle” (Pope Manufacturing Company. Catalogue and Price List of the Columbia Bicycle and Sundries. [Boston, 1879]). While they were safer, tricycles were much heavier and did not travel at the same speeds. A typical configuration can be seen here, with two large wheels on the side, and a smaller wheel either in back or front for steering. Other models had one large wheel on the side for pedaling and two smaller wheels opposite for steering. Tricycles could be operated by hand levers and pedals and came with wicker seats.

Bicycle designs further improved with the invention of the safety bicycle in the 1880s. These are more recognizable to the bikes we have today and were a drastic improvement on the boneshakers due to their pneumatic tires. These new tires made for a smoother ride without the danger inherent to the high-wheels. They were also easier to turn as the pedals were not attached to the wheel responsible for steering. Furthermore, the lower crossbars of safety bicycles made them more appropriate for women, who no longer had to split their skirts to sit down. This increased mobility fostered a movement of suffragists and feminists using and promoting bicycles. By the 1890s, safety bicycles had all but replaced the high-wheels.

As part of this bicycle craze, cycling clubs began to pop up around the world. According to guide books of the time, these clubs were beneficial for “good-fellowship, companionship for spins, and social standing in the bicycling community, special stimulus to interest, and incentives to excellence in riding” (Charles E. Pratt, The American Bicycler. Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1879.). One of the biggest clubs was the League of American Wheelmen, today known as the League of American Bicyclists. Morris himself was a member of the Veteran Wheelmen’s Association, a Philadelphia based group formed in 1908.

Around the 1920s bicycles began to lose their fad status and were regarded as a toy for children instead. I wonder how happy Morris and his friends would be to see the resurgence in bicycle riding today! These images are a captivating way to link the fads of the past with the crazes of the present.

Emma Ricciardi
Curatorial and Reading Room Assistant