Once Upon a Time

Bicycle clubs flourished, then faded in Quincy

This photograph shows members of the first Quincy Bicycle Club soon after its organization in 1885, taken in Highland Park. The state of Illinois dissolved the club in 1919 after its failure to file a financial report. | Photo courtesy Quincy Public Library
By JOSEPH NEWKIRK
Posted: Mar. 19, 2017 12:01 am

In 1817, German Baron Karl von Drais invented a prototype of the modern bicycle called a "velocipede" and nicknamed in English "hobbyhorse."

Throughout the following years, mechanics modified and redesigned it, and by the 1870s a high-wheeled bicycle enabling greater speed had replaced the velocipede and could occasionally be seen on American streets as a novelty.

During the latter part of that decade, Egbert H. Osburn demonstrated the first "wheel" in Quincy to dazzled spectators gathered in Pinkham Hall on Maine between Third and Fourth.

As more bicycles began taking to the road, an 1881 edition of The Quincy Daily Whig reprinted an article by Dr. J.T. Goddard about cycling's benefits. "Riding the bicycle affords pleasurable excitement," Goddard wrote," which is what most men drink liquor for, and it leaves no sting behind. ... It stimulates them to save money which they might otherwise spend foolishly." That same year a handful of men tried forming a bicycle club in Quincy, and while this first attempt soon folded, in 1885 the Quincy Bicycle Club was founded. Quincy, with a population of about 40,000 and mostly dirt streets, had perhaps two dozen bicycles with a price range of $75 to $150, or the equivalent of two to three months of the average wage. The bikes soon became status symbols and a fad well-suited for a club.

Almost immediately, though, the club clashed with city hall after issuing members duplex whistles similar to those police used. Aldermen drew up and passed an ordinance forbidding civilian whistle-blowing and bicycle riding in business districts. Members protested this ruling and later again voiced opposition when the city council voted down a resolution to buy back all of the whistles en masse for $5.

After an internal dispute among club members in 1888 over the morality of Sunday riding, a second bicycle club, Ramblers, formed and rode with separate colors in a rivalry of sponsored races and sometimes heated arguments. Conservatives in Quincy and the country deemed bicycling a sensual pleasure that people should not engage in lightly on the Sabbath. The New York Sun even asked in a column, "Should a minister of the gospel ride a bicycle?"

Despite these qualms, the American bicycle craze reached a pinnacle in the 1890s largely because of the introduction of pneumatic tires, with clubs forming from coast to coast. Ramblers and Quincy Bicycle Club competed with each other for three years before attempting to merge. This effort failed, but renegade members from both groups formed a third club known as Adams County Wheelmen.

These clubs' rivalries were mostly sportsmanlike, but bicycling clubs also played a role in national politics, where contentions sometimes turned vicious. In 1896, McKinley Bicycle Clubs sprang up across the country to support Republican Ohio Gov. William McKinley's presidential bid. Quincy soon had an active charter. Riders could be affiliated with any party and even leaning toward the opposition -- organizers hoped the esprit de corps of the club would sway them. McKinley's opponent, William Jennings Bryan, also spawned a few bicycle clubs for his candidacy, but more often characterized political cycling in his fiery speeches as a publicity stunt. Quincy never had a Bryan club, but the "bike bloc" proved vital to McKinley's ascent to the White House. Writing in the Indiana Magazine of History, Michael Taylor argues that the "desperate measures" used by the GOP in aligning cycling and politics "transformed America's ongoing infatuation with the bicycle into a love for the Republican Party and everything it stood for."

Women also embraced bicycling in their fight for emancipation and suffrage. Feminist leader Susan B. Anthony called bicycles "freedom machines" and stated: "Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world." Quincy women tried to establish a bicycle club in 1890 at a time when men exclusively filled current ones. A front-page editorial in The Quincy Daily Herald pitched: "Think, girls, of the credit of the beautiful Gem City and of the advantages in calves the girls in other towns who ride enjoy over you. With its aid a glow can be brought to the palest cheek and a rich, coursing healthful circulation to the most stagnant blood." While this initial attempt failed, in 1894 the Ladies Bicycling Club formed and soon afterward petitioned the Quincy Women's Council (an unofficial advisory group organized in 1893 when only men ran city government) about the need for better streets.

Many people were opposed to women bicycling in bloomers, which were considered provocative and immodest. The Quincy Daily Journal said: "Our opinion is that while a woman may be modest in any place and in any respectable dress, yet to be so she must preserve her individuality, her womanhood." The few female riders daring to wear bloomers often found themselves the butt of pointed humor, as in this local brevity: "Women on wheels should remember Lot's wife and never look back."

While several other Quincy bicycle clubs formed and folded over the next two decades -- YMCA Club, Two-Bicycle Club (for tandems), Amity Club -- the fad of bicycling faded as quickly as it had bloomed. Reasons for this decline include, ironically, increasing numbers of lower-priced bicycles, which no longer made them status symbols, and the splintering of clubs along racial and ethnic lines following the League of American Wheelmen's 1894 "whites only" restriction. The mass production of Ford Model Ts from 1909 to 1927, though, proved the most important factor, for like the bicycle's usurping of horses, cars provided a novel and more esteemed mobility. In 1900, the League of American Wheelmen disbanded, and in 1919 the state of Illinois dissolved the Quincy Bicycle Club Corp. because of its failure to file a financial report.

Once an exciting novelty, and source of camaraderie and competition, bicycling gave way to the automobile era that soon largely relegated bicycles to a transport for children too young to drive and a secondary conveyance for adults. Americans began yearning for modern "horseless carriages" that moved on four wheels now instead of two and had an engine propelling them rather than human legs.

 

Joseph Newkirk is a local writer and photographer whose work has been widely published. He is a contributor to literary magazines, a correspondent for Catholic Times, and for the past 23 years has written for the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project. He is a member of the reorganized Quincy Bicycle Club and has logged more than 10,000 miles on bicycles in his life.

 

 

 

 

Sources:

"Bicycling in Quincy." The Quincy Daily Journal, Sept. 21, 1895, Page 5.

 

"The Bittersweet History of Bicycle Clubs in America." The New York Times, Jan. 20, 2010. (also at NYTimes.com).

 

"Board of Aldermen: A Long and Turbulent Session of the City Council Last Night."

The Quincy Daily Whig, July 20, 1886, Page 3.

 

"City Brevities" [Ladies Bicycle Club].The Quincy Daily Herald, May 22, 1894, Page 2.

 

"City News … New Club formed." The Quincy Daily Journal, June 18, 1888, Page 4.

 

"Humor of the Wheel." The Quincy Daily Journal, June 05, 1895, Page 5.

 

"Let Her Roll: The Movement to Organize a Bicycle Club in Quincy." The Quincy Daily Whig, Aug. 13, 1881, Page 8.

 

"Local and General News" [McKinley Bicycle Club]. The Quincy Daily Journal, Oct. 1, 1896, Page 7.

 

"Not Allowed to Use Them." The Quincy Daily Whig, July 14, 1886, Page 3.

 

Palmer, Arthur Judson. Riding High: The Story of the Bicycle. New York: E.P. Dutton and Co. Inc., 1956.

 

"To Dissolve Corporations." The Quincy Daily Herald, Dec. 22, 1919, Page 4.

 

Taylor, Michael. "The Bicycle Boom and the Bicycle Bloc: Cycling and Politics in the 1890s." Indiana Magazine of History, Vol. 104, Issue 3, Pages 213-240.

 

"Where Are The Girls?" The Quincy Daily Herald, July 05, 1893, Page 1.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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