Shifting Gears: Rethinking Bicycling in Wisconsin

This is how the writer Stephen Crane described Manhattan in the pages of the New York Sun in July 1896: “On fine days, bicyclists appear in thousands…a person on nothing but legs feels like a strange animal.” Marveling at the glittering pageantry and spectacle of this “mighty army of wheels,” Crane would add, “The bicycling crowd has completely subjugated the street.”

Today, many of us can relate to and even find inspiration in Crane’s words. But very few of us, even the most committed cyclists among us, know bicycling’s full story. For more than 130 years, Crane’s “bicycling crowd” has been shaping lives and landscapes around the world. Scholars in the United States have only recently begun to explore bicycling in a more sustained way. A number of upcoming books—Lorenz J. Finison’s Boston’s Cycling CrazeJames Longhurst’s Bike BattlesEvan Friss’s The Cycling City, and my own recently published volume co-authored with Nick Hoffman—invite us to reconsider bicycling’s past, present, and future.

Worldwide interest in cycling first exploded in the late 1880s. Within the span of a few years, the number of bicyclists worldwide skyrocketed. The rising interest in cycling throughout the United States shaped a groundswell of reform movements, including the Good Roads Movement, ongoing women’s suffrage campaigns, and a number of urban reforms central to early progressivism.

1890s bicycling "road maps" like these point to a preponderance of street networks in Wisconsin, and well before the arrival of automobiles. (Wisconsin Historical Society)

1890s bicycling “road maps” like these point to a preponderance of street networks in Wisconsin, and well before the arrival of automobiles. (Wisconsin Historical Society)

But bicycling was (and remains) more than simply a social and cultural phenomenon: the sport’s late 19th-century popularity also wrought significant economic and landscape change. It expanded markets in rubber, acetylene, steel, cork, leather, bamboo, and even outdoor clothing. Labor unions representing bicycle workers emerged, including the Toledo-based International Union of Bicycle Workers (IUBW), as did some of the first bike messenger companies. Hand-held maps produced exclusively for the cycling community, like this one from 1896, helped reflect an expanded network of roads and side paths bicyclists helped unleash long before the automobile became the king of the road.

Wisconsinites by the 1890s were well positioned to witness and further shape these developments. The first bicycle ride in state history occurred in 1869 in Milwaukee, when a young man named Joshua Towne rode what was called a “velocipede” through the city’s midwinter streets.

This “improved” velocipede from a Wisconsin designer included ready-made “skis” to help navigate winter snows in 1868. (US Patent 85,501 via Google Patents)

By this time, state residents had already tried to adapt the velocipede for the state’s harsh local winter conditions. For example, Manitowoc resident Sylvester Wood submitted this outlandish design for an “improved” velocipede to the U.S. Patent Office in 1868. But despite his efforts, the sport first demonstrated promise as an indoor sport. A young woman named Edith Shuler gave a number of popular velocipede riding demonstrations at indoor rinks in Milwaukee throughout the spring of 1869.

The most iconic technology of the first “boom” was the high wheel bicycle. (Joel Heiman, Wisconsin Historical Society Museum)

Wisconsinites and other riders throughout the world, however, grew frustrated with the velocipede’s limitations, dismissing the rickety and rough-riding machines as “boneshakers.” New design innovations (such as improved spokes, saddles, and frames) soon emerged in Europe, especially England. These spurred a new wave of cycling enthusiasm. By the late 1870s, “hi-wheel” machines were all the rage.

Bicycling clubs appeared in several major cities by the 1880s, spurred by the creation of the League of American Wheelmen (LAW), which evolved into today’s Washington, D.C.-headquartered League of American Bicyclists. Yet the bicycle boom was never equally shared or enjoyed. The League banned African American participation in cycling at its national convention in Louisville in 1894. Throughout the last half of that decade, mainstream cycling was further characterized by the intense animosities men often expressed toward women riders.

Pittsburgh-based bicycle rider Frank Lenz stopped in Waukesha, Wisconsin, for this photograph during his worldwide tour by bike in 1892. (Milwaukee County Historical Society)

Pittsburgh-based bicycle rider Frank Lenz stopped in Waukesha, Wisconsin, for this photograph during his worldwide tour by bike in 1892. (Milwaukee County Historical Society)

Nonetheless, by the 1890s thousands of cyclists were hitting the road throughout Wisconsin and the world. During his famous worldwide bicycling tour, Pittsburgh resident Frank Lenz posed at Waukesha, Wisconsin to take this photograph in 1892. Tourists like Lenz and local enthusiasts were further aided by local bicycling publications like The Pneumatic, published in Milwaukee throughout the 1890s. New manufacturers, bike-friendly rail and side path networks, along with LAW-affiliated hotels, accommodated the emerging two-wheeled culture. Local restaurants even offered special and reduced-rate menu items for those who arrived by bike.

With the rise of the automobile after 1900, however, many mechanics and industry leaders who started in the bicycling trade transitioned their factories and mechanical know-how over to this newer, more lucrative industry. Only after World War II, and for complicated reasons, did bicycling re-emerge as a viable major industry in the United States. Bicycling’s popularity again soared in Wisconsin with the success of companies like Trek and through new statewide initiatives like the Rails-to-Trails program.

Since the late 1970s, a veritable “second” bicycling boom has again taken shape in the United States. Although recreational cycling has risen in popularity over the past several decades, commuting by bike remains unusual in the United States. Today, where many international cities routinely see 10% or more of their residents taking daily trips by bicycle, even the most bike-friendly cities in the United States, including Madison, rarely see more than 5 percent of their residents opt to ride bikes as their primary mode of transportation. Still, as Nelson Institute graduate students Micah Hahn, Maggie Grabow, and Melissa Whited pointed out in their influential 2010 study of bicycling in Wisconsin, 49 percent of state residents bike on a regular basis, making bicycling (by far) one of the most popular outdoor activities in the state. These riders support a local industry today worth well over a billion dollars.

“Shifting Gears: A Cyclical History of Badger Bicycling” opened in Madison in late February 2015. (Wisconsin Historical Society)

Want to know more about bicycling’s evolving local and global story? The Wisconsin Historical Society opened a brand-new exhibit in Madison on February 27, 2015. Called “Shifting Gears“, the exhibit is on display in Madison until November, when it will move to Appleton, Wisconsin’s History Museum at the Castle under the direction of Chief Curator Nick Hoffman. “Shifting Gears” presents nearly thirty historic bikes along with dozens of objects, including clothing and accessories, that document not only the sport’s origins in the last half of the nineteenth century, but also bicycling’s enduring presence in the State of Wisconsin today. From early velocipedes and hand-made bicycles to today’s wildly popular “Fat Tire” bikes, “Shifting Gears” promises a useful entry point into bicycle’s remarkable history. Even those with a bad case of what Rick Keller has lamented as “GAS” are welcome to reconsider the bicycle’s place—past, present, and future.


Jesse Gant (@GantJesse) is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at UW-Madison and a CHE graduate affiliate. During the 2014-2015 academic year he is serving as a Public Humanities Fellow with the UW-Madison Center for the Humanities and the Wisconsin Humanities Council, where he is helping to develop the Working Lives project. His award-winning book, Wheel Fever: How Wisconsin Became a Great Bicycling State, co-authored with Nick Hoffman and supported with funding from the Nelson Institute, inspired both Old World Wisconsin’s “Catch Wheel Fever” exhibit, and the Wisconsin Historical Society’s upcoming Shifting Gears exhibit. Jesse is leading a four-part lecture course this March through UW’s Continuing Studies program on the history of bicycling. 

5 Responses

  1. Holly M says:

    Cycling is still the best kind of transportation for me especially if it’s just a short way trip or just within the city travel. Less pollution and promotes healthy life style.

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