By Jeanne Schultz Angel of Naper Settlement
Somewhat unknown in history, America experienced a “cycling craze” from 1890 to 1900 in which citizens of almost every age, class, gender, and race were wholly invested in the possibilities of bicycles for widespread use. Devotees permeated American culture and helped to improve the infrastructure of our country and change the lifestyle of everyday Americans.
Cyclists represented a new sense of freedom and democracy for everyday citizens with a new, inexpensive form of travel. Bicycles allowed people of modest income the freedom of movement, including women. To better understand the impact of bicycles, imagine that your other options are travel by horse or early automobiles, of which the average person did not own (only 1 in 10,000 Chicagoans owned an automobile in 1900).
Prior to the 1880s, the design of the bicycle was far less user-friendly and later improvements allowed for a more comfortable and safer ride. After the mass production of the modern “safety bicycle” began, people started to ride in large groups as well as for everyday commuting, and large crowds of cyclists were a common sight by the end of the nineteenth century. Riders also enjoyed the leisure of a bike ride, which promoted a healthy lifestyle.
However, cycling was not simply a pleasant pastime or just a mode of transportation. It was also a way for citizens to enter politics and affect change and progress throughout the United States. Bicycle enthusiasts and industry leaders from around the country formed an organization in 1880 called the League of American Wheelmen.
Effectively, this group acted as a political action committee to advocate and lobby for greater public awareness of cycling and policies that promoted cycling. This political “bicycle bloc” was a force to be reckoned with — with a membership of over 70,000 and a flare for spectacle with bicycle races and parades —the Wheelman drew huge crowds of people. National political candidates such as William McKinley linked the love of the bicycle to his party’s politics and attempted to sway the influence of the Wheelmen.
Suffragists also used and endorsed the bicycle as a tool for women’s independence and boosted the rational clothing movement. Women’s fashion needed to become more reasonable as they were unable to ride bikes with long cumbersome skirts and oversized sleeves. Popular women such as Francis Willard, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the first woman to ride a bike in Illinois, became shining examples of the appeal and promise of how bicycles could change society for the better.
However, the political influence of the “bicycle bloc” had its most profound effect on road construction. Roads outside of urban areas were typically dirt and prone to being muddy and uneven. Surprisingly, the Good Roads Movement started in the late 1800s as part of the cycling craze, not as a result of automobiles. The Movement was a catalyst for public support of the construction of a paved roadway system born out of cyclists’ frustrations of the dangerous conditions.
The League of American Wheelmen began to publish Good Roads Magazine in 1892. At that time, Illinois formed a Good Roads Commission to determine how to build a solid roadway system through the state and how much it may cost. In the late 1800s, Illinois had an estimated 100,000 miles of established wagon roads and less than 30 miles of them were hard surfaced roads and only 7% gravel. The National Good Roads Convention was held in St. Louis in 1903 in which national politicians such as Theodore Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan made appearances.
Rural and agricultural communities throughout Illinois collaborated with cyclists on the common goal of hard-surfaced roads as better road conditions benefited all. Most of America was, after all, made up of farming-based economies that needed to get products to market. In fact, in a report by the Illinois Good Roads Commission in 1905 presented to the Illinois State Legislature, it was “more important to the people of the city and to the great corporations to have the farmer and his produce come to them, than it is to the farmer to go to them.” In this effort, farmers and cyclists found a common goal in road improvement.
How popular was the bicycle in the 1890s? The industry was fueled by hundreds of manufacturers, dealers, and bike repair shops in regions that popped up overnight. Other side industries catered to the bike craze in specialized clothing and shoes. In Chicago, a single bike race drew 25,000 spectators. The Wheelmen had considerable influence in both national political campaigns and local roadway projects. Embracing this new pastime and mode of transportation really meant embracing American progress at a time of momentous change in demographics, industry, and global political standing.