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For Those Who Would A-Wheeling Go

Aug 10, 2011 3:52 PM | 0 comments

Such hyperbole could only come from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which printed this notice on June 26, 1896, the eve of the grand opening of a new bicycling path connecting Prospect Park to Coney Island.  Twenty-thousand cyclists were expected to ride in a parade down Eastern Parkway to the path's head in Prospect Park, with thousands more spectators cheering from the sidelines.  Leading the pack was the distinguished Brooklyn Park Commissioner Timothy L. Woodruff, who would later serve as lieutenant governor under Theodore Roosevelt.

This photograph by Edgar Thomson shows a portion of the bicycle parade. 

The parades and fanfare of 1896 marked bicycling's official arrival as the sport of choice for Brooklynites, after the pastime was treated for years as public nuisance.  In 1873 Brooklyn's aldermen passed a law banning bicycles from city thoroughfares during daylight hours, and a few years later, the Eagle declared that one of the only excuses for the bicycle's existence was "the larger chance of the non-survival of the unfittest -- being those who ride the velocipede -- through accident."  I'm pretty certain there's an insult embedded in that double negative. 

Another Thomson photograph, from 1894, of bicyclists taking in the views at P.T. Barnum's circus at Broadway and Halsey Street.

By the 1890s, the Eagle was singing a very different tune; the newspaper had jumped on the stretch tandem of bicycle fandom, and was leading the call for better cycling paths in the city.  Articles on the benefits and pleasures of cycling abounded in the summer of 1896, with the Eagle dispensing tips on what routes to take (there's a 120-mile jaunt to Patchogue and back for ambitious bikers, or a milder 20-mile route through Fort Hamilton for those still getting their legs) and wondering incredulously how it is that only 10 years before a city official had the temerity to declare that "persons who had arrived at years of discretion and still rode wheels were asses." 

The stretch tandem of bicycle fandom -- an 1896 ad for Ehrich Bros. bicycle shop, at 6th Avenue and 23rd Street in Manhattan.

The pages of the Eagle were filled with advertisements for all the necessary accoutrements for a pleasure cruise -- beyond buying the bike itself, would-be wheelers might also consider purchasing a lamp for nighttime riding (like the 20th Century Company's model, left), a "body shield" to cut down wind resistance, or sporty "leggins" to be worn under skirts.

The women's cycling boots, right, sold by J & T Cousins on Fulton Street, promised "perfect ankle motion" for the lady cyclist.

Almost as prevalent as the praising ads and articles were the grumbles of protest from those who were not so thrilled with the two-wheeled contraptions.  Then, as now, pedestrians urged the police to crack down on bicyclists riding illegally on city sidewalks.  Then, as now, a small but aggravating cadre of wheelmen ignored speed limits and stop signs to use the city as their own personal racetrack (back then, they called them scorchers, and fined them $5 for each offense).  Then, as now, bicyclists were less than welcomed by other traffic on the streets, although in the 1890s that traffic consisted not of delivery vans and SUVs, but of horses and buggies.  Then, as now, a bit of commonly understood etiquette was needed to facilitate the bicyclists' relationship with his or her fellow Brooklynites, and the Eagle helpfully, and sometimes condescendingly, offered this advice to "the girl who would a-wheeling go."

This feature, which printed in April of 1896, largely doled out fashion tips, with an in-depth discussion of the bloomer and its waning popularity.  More to the point was a section called "Bicycle Don'ts"; a list of seventy-two aphorisms to keep in mind whilst perched atop a bicycle seat, ranging from useful to ridiculous.

"Don't fall."

"Don't swear."

"Don't be ungraceful."

"Don't be a freak."

"Don't ride till you are numb."

"Don't forget to turn to the right."

"Don't think you are the only cyclist in the road."

"Don't use bicycle slang."

"Don't ride a tandem with a 'soldier'."

"Don't try to ride like a man -- if you're a woman."

"Don't collide with railroad trains.  It is not good for your wheel."

"Don't run over babies because they happen to be in the road."

And finally, "Don't chew gum.  It looks bad and doesn't make your wheel go any faster."  Words to live by.  Bike safely!