Birmingham’s Victorian Bicycle Craze
by James L. Baggett

Bicycles, known colloquially in the nineteenth century as "wheels," offered a new kind of mobility that many women embraced. While some worried that having women riding about on bicycles would lead to moral decay, bicycle manufactures catered to the new clientele, and Victorian era women found freedom on their bikes. One Washington housewife explained that "long and frequent rides alone" gave her "a certain feeling of independence."

The first bicycle manufacturers were French blacksmiths, who probably began fashioning bikes in the 1850s. For the first few decades, bicycles were designed with a large front wheel with the pedals attached to it., and a much smaller rear wheel. These bikes were ungainly and dangerous. By the late 1880s, bicycle makers had developed the "safety" bike, a design very close to what we know today, with wheels of similar size, rubber tires with an inner-tube, and a chain drive.

Offering a safer and more comfortable ride, the new design helped create a bicycle craze, and by the turn of the century there were millions of riders in the United State and throughout Europe. Bicycle clubs formed and publishers created new magazines for cycling enthusiasts. Birmingham hosted cross country bicycle races and races on the fairgrounds horse track.

Birmingham women also enjoyed this new mobility and autonomy. Edith Ward, a Birmingham teenager, often rode for miles around the city and countryside with friends and recorded regular bicycle trips in her diary. "Came home and studied," she wrote in 1895, "and in the afternoon went to Powderly on my new wheel, which is simply fine." 

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Birmingham Public Library Archives, recognized internationally as one of the largest and finest municipal archives in the United States. With more than 30,000,000 documents, maps, architectural drawings, works of art and 400,000 photographs, the Archives preserves the raw material of Birmingham history and makes it available to students, scholars and the simply curious.

Running throughout this year, “Timepiece” is a Birmingham Magazine monthly feature on Birmingham history that will highlight items from the Archives’ collections.