Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Mechanical Horse: How The Bicycle Reshaped American Life by Margaret Guroff

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This year, the new books rack at the local library has been a fertile source of interesting books that I might not otherwise have thought of reading. The two other books I found this way, Because of Sex by Gillian Thomas, and The Other Slavery by Andres Resendez were heavier reads than this. They were also both excellent, and I highly recommend both of them. 

The Mechanical Horse: How The Bicycle Reshaped American Life is a lighter read, but still a rather interesting one. For some reason, the bicycle seems like an old fashioned device, one from the days of ox carts and chariots. But in reality, it has only been around for a little over 150 years, and was only affordable to the average person for less time than that. It is a modern invention, and has more in common with motor vehicles and aircraft than with the transportation of the past, as the author points out.

This book is not an exhaustive history of the bicycle, nor does it focus on the development of its subject. Instead, it looks at the social impact and influence of the bicycle on society and on the future. Furthermore, it focuses on the bicycle in the United States, giving the history in Europe and the present worldwide just a few mentions.

The history begins, of course, with the first gadget that looked like a bike: the one you had to push with your feet, rather than pedal. It never caught on, for reasons that seem obvious now. Instead, it was the “velocipede” that would get a foothold into the public consciousness. The pedals at first were attached to the front wheel. As the need for speed increased, the front wheels became ever larger, topping out at the maximum a human could manage: twice the rider’s inseam.

But enough about the history. You can read the book yourself for more and better.

I did want to focus on a few of the most interesting social implications of the bicycle. In this book, the author describes how the need for suitable riding surfaces led to the paving of roads. In turn, this paving made the use of automobiles feasible in the following decades. Sometimes, we forget that, unlike Europe, the United States of the mid-to-late 1800s had a bad to non-existent road system outside the cities. There was a reason why elections were held nearly six months before the new president and congress would be sworn in: it literally could take that long to travel to Washington DC.

The bicycle also paved the way (in a more figurative sense) for the invention of the automobile itself. Henry Ford (along with a number of other manufacturers and inventors) got his start making bicycles. And everyone knows of the Wright Brothers, who used their bicycle shop and expertise to build and fly the first airplane. Since bicycle manufacture combined a high level of technical expertise with a need to keep costs down and processes simple, it is natural that the bicycle engineer and technician would have a head start in these new industries.

I also found a particular chapter in this book to be interesting. The author proposes that the bicycle was a key factor in a major societal change in the United States: the shift to a consumer society and possessions as status symbols. That the United States is foremost among nations in our accumulation of stuff and our never-ending need for more useless crap is pretty hard to dispute. The author notes that prior to consumer culture, the wealthy were as likely to show off by parading their idleness and self-indulgence. (One can in some ways see this returning, in the movement to use wealth to buy “experiences” rather than “stuff.” Probably nothing new under the sun…) With the bicycle, though, having the latest and greatest toy became the popular way to show off.

Interestingly, the popularity of the bicycle in the United States, where it is rarely practical as a primary means of transportation (unlike in, say, China), has depended largely on its association with status. During the first boom, only rich men could afford them. So, clubs were formed (and excluded women, non-whites, and youths as unworthy) where the wealthy could race and show off their toys. Once bicycles became affordable to the masses, the bloom faded, and sales fell. Later, bicycles would become a status symbol for children: every kid had to have a bicycle. And then the fad passed. (Of course, “less popular” now means more people own a bike than they did during the first “fad,” but these are relative measures.) Now, in our present time, one can see another boom - this time in mountain bikes of great cost and sophistication. Again, a status symbol plaything of wealthy men. (And a few women too this time around.)

It was interesting to read some of the statements made by the men of leisure in that first boom. Only true amateurs were allowed to race - nobody who could use an extra buck could do so. Some of the statements (and the notorious manners) of the riders make the bicycle seem like an early version of the sports car or oversized SUV, used as much to extend the middle finger to others as for any practical purpose.

My wife already knew this, but I was not aware of just how much the bicycle was a catalyst in the early Feminist movement. The Victorian Era was one of ridiculous fashions for women, ones seemingly (and probably in fact) calculated to weigh women down, sap their strength, ruin their health, and make activity burdensome at best.

The bicycle threw a wrench (or a wheel, perhaps) into this. At first, only men rode, while women were relegated to large tricycles. But women wanted the freedom and thrill of speed and motion too. Hence, bloomers and other outfits were fashioned. By the 1880s, women were making scandalous news for riding in public wearing pants. The pearl clutching brigade had their panties all in a wad over this, sure the world was going to hell.

Regular readers of my blog will know that this is a bit of a sore point for me, because of me and my wife’s history. I want to quote a few things from the book because of how they illustrate exactly why the body policing of females is damaging.

The temperance activist Frances Willard recalled in her memoirs that:

“I ‘ran wild’ until my sixteenth birthday, when the hampering long skirts were brought, with their accompanying corset and high heels. I remember writing in my journal, in the first heartbreak of a young human colt taken from its pleasant pasture, ‘Altogether, I recognize that my occupation is gone.’”

I showed this to my wife, who confirmed that this was very much how she felt during puberty, when she went from shorts and t-shirts to long dresses and “Modesty Culture.”

This is the very reason why I am so determined that my daughters will never be made to feel ashamed of their bodies. Girls, just like boys, should be able to feel the joy of movement, of exercise, of flying around on wheels, of being wonderfully and gloriously human. (Hey, I’m 40 and nobody’s idea of svelte, but I still feel joy while running and hiking and, well, moving freely.) Watching my own kids, I do not see any difference between male and female in this respect. It is only when you tell girls that they should not be active, vigorous, and free that they change. 

 Me and my second daughter, after racing up a set of switchbacks at Bryce Canyon National Park. (She won.)

By the way, the bicycle’s impact on female liberation wasn’t just in the area of clothing. It also granted them freedom to move around without male assistance or accompaniment. Much hay has been made of Saudi Arabia and its ban on female driving. Why does the law exist? To be sure that women do not venture out from the supervision of men. Thus it was in the early days of the bicycle too.

A single woman’s reputation could be ruined by being seen in public with a man. In public. In a public place. But the bicycle, by making it possible to travel miles at a time, helped change this perception. As two female journalists put it:

“The world is a new and another sphere under the bicyclist’s observation. Here is a process of locomotion that is absolutely at her command.”

“If a woman’s sphere begins to feel too small, the sufferer can do no better than to flatten her sphere to a circle, mount it, and take to the road.”

No less a luminary than Susan B. Anthony, herself too old to feel able to ride, said about the bicycle:

“I’ll tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate woman than any one thing in the world.”

One further revolution was instigated by the bicycle: the fitness revolution. It is rather amusing in a dark way just how much classism has played in popular belief, and this is one example. Not too long ago, only commoners engaged in physical activity. Work was for those who had to, leisure was for those who could afford to avoid work. And thus arose the idea that one had only so much exertion available in one’s lifetime, and that wasting energy by vigorous activity was bound to shorten one’s life. (This turns out to be true for honeybees, but not for mammals…) So, when the bicycle appeared, there were dire warnings that horrible things awaited those who rode.

Naturally, this worry was primarily directed at women, a sex who was “born tired,” and who must not exert themselves physically (or mentally, for that matter) as they needed to keep their strength up for childbirth.

“The exertion necessary to riding with productive of an excitation of nervous and physical energy that is anything but beneficial,” Charlotte Smith warned. “If a halt is not called soon, 75 per cent of the cyclists will be an army of invalids within the next ten years.”

The problem was, of course, that time proved the naysayers wrong. It turned out that physical activity promoted health, strengthened the body, and lifted the spirits. Even pregnant women are now encouraged to stay active. (My wife’s doctor cleared her to run a 10k at 5 months pregnant - and there were no ill effects.) Within a few decades, the opinion had changed, and doctors were recommending exercise as cures for a variety of illnesses. Not that this was universal. Then, as now, there was the competition between those espousing exercise, and those offering quack cures for the supposed diseases caused by it.

I have to quote one more line here, from the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, on the many cases of injury from bicycle crashes involving excessive speed. (In those halcyon days before helmets…)

“It might seem almost impossible to fracture a skull thick enough to permit indulgence in such practices, but the bicycle fool at full speed has been able to accomplish it.”

Despite the noise on both sides, fitness would win the day. As I watch my own kids - particularly my daughters - I see the benefits of these revolutions. My children are free to run (we are members of the local track club) and hike, and bike, and climb, free from any worry that they will damage their bodies by exercise. My children take for granted the fact that they will increasingly be able to go where they want without supervision as they grow into adulthood. All of them, not just the boys, can and do wear clothing that permits movement and allows cooling airflow as they sweat.

The bicycle had a significant role in these revolutions. This book tells those stories, and does so in an entertaining and enlightening manner.


  1. Somehow I suspect fears of the womenfolk losing their hymens by accident came up as well. Wasn't that also one of the ideas that played into women being required to ride sidesaddle?

    1. That wasn't specifically in this book, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was a concern. :D

  2. One of the most interesting clothing-optional events I have been in has been the World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR). Now, nudist events tend to draw middle-aged men much more than other demographics, but at the WNBR I saw a great mix of young and old, men and women. At one Denver WNBR, there were two young women on Rollerblades who may have been professional roller derby players, since they had little trouble keeping up with the cyclists. Their tag line us "Bare As You Dare," and there were many who rode clothed only in body paint. Here again, the bicycle seems the factor in drawing people of all ages and genders together to flout certain societal norms.

    1. Interesting. Exercise in general seems to do that. I am thinking of a well known event closer to home - the Bay to Breakers run in San Francisco, which has been (unofficially) clothing optional for years. And, lest we forget, the original Olympic Games were nude...