The bicycle’s role in the rise of Individualism

ALBERT HERRESTAL writes about the liberating effect of the bicycle on all classes of society - and the cost of its dominance on other trades. Translation from the German by JIM McGURN.

There is no doubt about the purpose of Drais's running machine; he wanted to develop a vehicle which would make human propulsion easier and faster. But it was only by the diversionary route of its popularity as a toy and sports machine for rich people that it finally succeeded in becoming the first individual form of transport for the common man and, some time later, also for women.

The high point of bicycle culture in Germany round about 1900 and its later mass popularity as a means of transport in the 1920s coincided with a time of strong class conflict. People became conscious of a great chasm which developed between the social classes. The bicycle had always been the plaything of the industrial elite, but industrial production methods brought a fall in prices which made the mass use of bicycles possible. Already in 1894, English magazine Fortnightly Review carried an essay that described bicycling in 1870 as the plaything of a few enthusiasts. In 1880 penny farthings brought a growing enthusiasm among the middle classes; in 1890 it was a nationwide pastime. By 1900 they said that it would have developed from a luxury into an essential need. The magazine anticipated that in the near future, everyone with healthy limbs, men, women and children would have access to a bike.

In 1900 a very influential book appeared called the ‘Philosophy of Cycling' by Eduard Bertz, which declared that "both sexes cycle today, and every age group and all classes, workers, farmers and soldiers as well as artists, academics, politicians and kings". Bertz saw the communality of cycling bringing all these people together and claimed that people who cycled became part of a great world wide reform movement. Many petty pre-occupations and unimportant details fell by the wayside, while a new liberating spirit was released. This common pursuit created a shared identity for cyclists and inspired a spiritual conversion. Thus the bike served progress and the development of a common humanity, of peace and freedom.

Another reason for the social success of the bicycle was the rise of individualism. Many people recognised the importance of an individual form of transport. Bertz said that it was without doubt that the value of the bicycle lay in the time it could save. The railway that preceded it was a pioneer for the bike, but it was not enough, it did not meet the changing needs of modern transport because it followed predetermined routes, at predetermined times, to specified destinations. It served the masses who were prepared to subordinate themselves to official timetables, to be moulded to someone else's regime. The bicycle is not subject to any timetable, is free, does not follow set lines, but can be used for countless self-selected routes, at every hour and in every direction of the compass. It meets the needs of individuals and corresponds to the eternal multiplicity of human wills.

 Hubert writing in ‘Scribner's Magazine' (quoted by Bertz) was of the opinion that "for 99 out of a 100 men the bicycle is better than a horse because there's hardly any maintenance costs and it never gets tired. It goes three times as far as a horse in the same time.

People, who stabled or hired out horses found that their living was seriously threatened, prices dropped, and farmers in America found that at the end of the last century, breeding horses was hardly worthwhile. In the American magazine ‘Arena', Sylvester Baxter claimed that horses would disappear from the streets just as they had disappeared from most tramways. As horses would therefore no longer pound the roads, new absolutely flat roads could be laid according to scientific principles for cyclists, and the costs of maintenance would be minimal. There would be lots of electrically driven carriages, noiselessly propelled in all directions. The current noise on the streets would vanish, relieving the nerves of many city dwellers. Street cleaners would be practically redundant.

Carriage drivers and coachmen were up in arms in all countries, because they had previously dominated the road and were used to dealing with pedestrians. Now cyclists could zip past them and make fun of them. Carriage drivers often went over to the wrong side of the road to restrict the cyclist's passage or completely block narrow roads, forcing cyclists to follow behind in the ground churned up by the coaches, often causing a fall in the ruts.

Bertz saw parallels with the machine wreckers of the previous century,  another reaction by people who saw themselves being made redundant by mechanical tools. Karl Marx devoted a whole chapter to this phenomenon in ‘Das Kapital' stating that wherever the machine takes over a field of production, it creates chronic misery amongst the workers it displaces. Where the transition was fast, the misery was acute. Perhaps the carriage drivers felt the same towards cycling.

Other areas of the economy were affected. Bertz refers to the American monthly magazine The Forum, which in 1896 reported on how different trades were suffering from cycling. For example, wealthy people who used to give their children such presents as a gold watch, a piano, or furniture for their rooms, no longer did so. The magazine reflected that piano and clock makers might be complaining, but this was not necessarily a bad thing since there were many talentless people playing the piano, and it was good for anyone to get out on a bike. It was beneficial that a healthy sport drove out a dispensable luxury. Dressmakers were also complaining because both sexes cycled in cheap sporting costumes. A milliner suggested that the milliners trade organisation should petition congress urging that all cyclists should be obliged to purchase at least two felt hats a year as cyclists often dispensed with hats as they blew off. Shoemakers were also hit because cyclists were buying inexpensive beach shoes, which were not easily worn out by the pedals. Cigar manufacturers said that cycling had so badly affected trade that on average a million fewer cigars a day were being smoked. Innkeepers complained loudly about the decrease in wine and beer consumption, Theatre and other entertainment venues complained about lower attendance, and barbers complained that cyclists were not bothering to shave or have a haircut before cycling. The New York Journal of Commerce estimated that in 1896 that the cycle boom was costing America 112 million dollars.

Church attendance was affected by people preferring to cycle, especially the younger generation. The evangelical Mr Bertz responded that the bright eyed cyclist communing with a wonderful vista was more likely to be in direct touch with the almighty than the community confined before the pulpit.

We take it for granted that women cycle. However, this was once decried, bare knees were a scandal, and sweat on the brow was thought unfeminine. J K Jerome wrote in 1900 in a novel that ten years ago, no German woman worth her reputation, who was looking for a spouse, would have dared to ride a bicycle. Now they whizzed about the countryside in their thousands. Older people shook their heads but the young were impressed and jumped on bicycles themselves.

By the end of 1896, the women's right to ride was established in most European countries. Corsets were criticised and doctors began to recommend looser garments so that ladies could breathe more easily. Ankle-length skirts gave way to riding costume, cycling trousers and culottes. George Hermann wrote in 1901 " The bicycle is to be thanked for giving women the freedom they have today in the public arena. The bicycle has brought the daughters of the house from their knitting, away from the pots and pans, taken them out with brother or friend into the open air, and has freed our young girls from the constant supervision of mothers and aunts, and has brought them to a degree of independence. Women should therefore to erect a monument to the bicycle because it has done so much to free them from old prejudices and has given them the chance of moving freely outside the house and has improved their access to the world of professional work."

Accidents were another major issue around 1900. Bertz wrote that "it cannot be denied that the bicycle has appeared in the world as a disturber of the peace and is a new broad new danger for street traffic. Pedestrians in the bigger cities already needed to take great care in crossing the street.  Many are injured because they have not been able to keep pace with the speed of technical developments in transport or their lack of noise."  Bertz regretted how thoughtless or inattentive normal people could be when crossing in front of cyclists: "Do they not have eyes, can't they hear a bell? It is a measure of the skill and alertness of cyclists that cyclists hit few pedestrians. Those who suffer most are the indecisive, the fearful and the nervous. Those who are frozen by the sound of a bell or because a cyclist is coming towards them will probably survive better than those who jump this way and that in front of the approaching bicycle. Even something the size of a churchbell would not be loud enough to alert some people."

The role of doctors at this time seems curious from a modern standpoint. Many doctors at the turn of the century allowed their distaste for cycling to colour their medical judgement. Discussions amongst doctors were often heated and bitter. Dr Von Leo claimed cycling brings tiredness, temporary swellings and stiffness due to the fairly static riding position. He claimed there were disturbances to the nervous system and circulation, and uneven development of muscles. He thought that the muscles of the arms would not match the development of the leg muscles, which would be enormous. This would be ugly and unfeminine and would produce a strange gait. This would particularly affect young girls who were still growing. It was felt that the dust stirred up from cycling would also have a bad effect, it would get into the eyes and damage lungs. Doctors warned against strains on the nerves of the back and heart problems, an increase in TB, and urine poisoning of the blood. Dr Martin Mendelsohn, at the end of the last century, in a lecture for the Association for Internal Medicine of Berlin, said that cycling increases the body heat, and the increase in blood circulation would increase sexual libido. Men often had to dismount in the course of cycling to allow their libido to ebb away and to avoid the outward signs of sexual arousal...

There is nothing to add to that.