How the bicycle shifted labor, technology, and marriage

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The bicycle has had an impact over time on travel, fashion, and even marriage, says historian David Ortiz.

The earliest bicycle design, called the “ordinary,” “penny farthing,” or “hi-boy,” was very tall with a disproportionately large front wheel. The introduction of the “safety” design seen in modern bicycles made riding more accessible beginning in the 1890s.

Ortiz, associate professor at the University of Arizona, is an avid cyclist, biking 28 miles roundtrip to work during the school year and logging as many as 200 miles a week during the summer months. He competes year-round in cycling events, and in 2017, completed a 73-day solo ride from Oregon to Virginia along the TransAmerica Bike Trail.

That same year, he also launched a course that combines history and cycling: “Perpetual Revolutions: A History of the Bicycle.”

With World Bicycle Day just around the corner on June 3, Ortiz offers his take on bicycle history:


Why does the bicycle warrant an entire course?


The bicycle is a fascinating piece of technology that impinges on a number of important areas of contemporary life that make it a more-than-worthy topic of study. It impinges upon environmental history, labor history, gender history, and legal history.

For example, the modern bicycle’s design—the triple diamond frame, or “safety”—was changed to make it easier for people, specifically women, to ride. When the “safety” bicycle was introduced in the 1890s, it immediately altered women’s social position wherever it was introduced, as it allowed them for the first time to travel unchaperoned, on their own, to wherever they wished.


Susan B. Anthony is quoted as saying that the bicycle did more for women’s rights and emancipation than any other single invention or law to that point in history. In other words, women experienced freedom for the first time, and this contributed greatly to a feeling of equality that helped women pursue more social and civil rights. The bicycle also provided a form of exercise for women that demonstrated they could be athletic, as during most of the 19th century women were discouraged from or outright barred from most athletics and athletic competition.

After the new bicycle design proved popular with women, it also forced a change in women’s fashions. No longer were the large hoop skirts and long, overflowing frilly dresses standard apparel for women. Clothing had to be designed more practically for women to be able to move more freely so they could ride a bike.


How did the bicycle’s invention change life in America and globally?


The bicycle has had a tremendous role in the advancement of modernity and the development of modern technology wherever it was introduced. This is both positive and negative. On the positive side, for example, the Wright Brothers (known for the airplane), the Dunlops (known for tires), and many other pioneers in the invention of other forms of transportation began as bicycle manufacturers or worked in bicycle shops.

The tools necessary to make a bicycle frame spurred technological development in the steel industry, rubber industry, plastics, and so forth as inventors sought to make more efficient tools so they could supply the manufacturers in the bicycle industry that were experiencing a boom in the 19th century.

In the United States, England, and continental Europe, bicycle clubs and advocacy groups pressed for road improvement, which resulted in the closing of the social gap between rural and urban spaces. Improved roads allowed cyclists from the city to see the countryside in ways they had not been able to before, due to cost as well as absence of access, and vice versa; country folk could visit the larger towns or cities cheaply.

Roads changed social relations because young women and young men were not limited to potential marriage partners in their own towns. They could travel elsewhere to meet new potential partners. This changed the whole dynamic of gender relations.

On the negative side, road improvement helped accelerate the development of the automobile that eventually supplanted the bicycle as the dominant form of transportation, especially after Ford pioneered the manufacturing of cheap, dependable autos.

Also among the negative impacts was labor exploitation. Coal workers in India once carried coal from the mines to where it was processed by hand. Coal was loaded in sacks, then the sacks were tied to long poles that the laborers would balance on their backs and walk to the processing location. When the bicycle came, it became the form of transporting the mined coal to the processing plant. However, coal owners and supervisors expected the laborer to transport much more coal because they could now load it and themselves on bicycles and go to and from the mine more rapidly.


What are the biggest changes we’ve seen in the bicycle since its first incarnation?


The first bicycles were powered by pushing off with your feet on the ground, much like Fred Flintstone in the cartoons. The greatest changes in the bicycle begin with the change from the two-wheeled, very tall bicycle, known as the “ordinary” or the “penny farthing” or “hi-boy,” to the diamond triangle framed “safety” bicycle that is the form of the modern bicycle today.

From there, changes in drivetrain, pedals, frame material, tire technology, seating, and brakes came swiftly over the years. The bicycle is now a truly internationally developed example of manufacturing technology, as its parts are manufactured virtually on every continent but its parts are so standardized that one bicycle can have parts manufactured in several countries without hindering its performance, durability, or the ease with which it can be repaired.


How has the popularity of cycling evolved over time and where does it stand today?


The bike has risen and fallen in popularity over its lifetime in accordance with social tastes, economic changes, and political whims. It was limited in popularity by its own design during the 1860s to 1880s, before the invention of the “safety.” Upon introduction of the “safety,” the bicycle enjoyed a fantastic boom from the early to late 1890s. Depression and the invention of the automobile curbed that popularity from the late 1890s through the First World War.

After the war, bicycle manufacturing leveled off and then had boom or bust periods that corresponded with social fads, economic fluctuations, and political contingencies, among other types of general social influences. Currently, bicycling and bicycle manufacturing is undergoing another rise in fortune due to its identification as a carbon-free or mostly carbon-free form of transportation.

Today, the bicycle still signifies a fun, economical, and utilitarian form of transportation. It can be whatever the rider desires it to be. It’s viewed as a great exercise device. It often brings people back to their childhood and happier, more carefree days. It’s viewed as a political statement—the antidote to cars, pollution, and climate change through auto exhaust—and judging by the designs and colors, it’s also a fashion statement.

Historians are typically not very proficient at predicting the future, so I’ll hazard a cautious guess as to where the bicycle is heading. I think it is moving toward a future of more accommodation to different types of riders and riding. The advent of electric and battery-assisted bicycles retains the function of the bike as an environmentally sound transportation choice while expanding its potential customer base. My dad, an 86-year-old cancer survivor, is thinking about buying a bike again because of accommodations in seating and the advent of electric and battery assist bicycles.

Additionally, I’m guessing that cycling activist groups, “biketivists,” are going to become more and more vocal as transportation changes and moves away from the internal combustion engine and the automobile as the mainstay. They’re going to demand that bicycles get a lot more consideration and a lot more space in the transportation networks and infrastructures of the future.