Bicycle Mania! The story of New York on two wheels, from velocipedes to ten-speeds — with women’s liberation in tow

Alice Austen’s iconic photograph of a telegram bike messenger in 1896, a year where many New Yorkers were wild about bikes. Austen even rode one around with her camera. 

PODCAST The bicycle has always seemed like a slightly awkward form of transportation in big cities, but in fact, it’s reliable, convenient, clean and — believe it or not — popular in New York City for almost 200 years.

The original two-wheeled conveyance was the velocipede or dandy horse which debuted in New York in 1819. After the Civil War, an improved velocipede dazzled the likes of Henry Ward Beecher and became a frequent companion of carriages and streetcars on the streets of New York. Sporting men, meanwhile, took to the expensive high-wheeler.

But it was during the 1890s when New Yorkers really pined for the bicycle. It liberated women, inspired music and questioned Victorian morality. Casual riders made Central Park and Riverside Drive their home, while professionals took to the velodrome of Madison Square Garden. And in Brooklyn, riders delighted in New York’s first bike path, built in 1894 to bring people out to Coney Island.

FEATURING:  Robert Moses, Charles Willson Peale, Ed Koch, and New York’s bike thief in bloomers!

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The early velocipede went by several names — the hobby horse, the dandy horse, the draisine. This device made a big splash in 1819 before they were effectively banned from the city. [NYPL]

With the velocipede craze of the late 1860s, women attempted to conform to Victorian ideals of fashion with a host of bizarre products to maintain a ladylike presentation. By the 1890s, women riders chucked most of those conformities out the window, introducing more comfortable clothing and embracing the independence offered by the bicycle.

At top: An ad for a hair product, 1869. (LOC) Below: A radical change of costume in a photo illustration from 1890s (courtesy Brain Pickings, accompanying an amusing article of women’s bicycle do’s and don’ts from 1895)

The bicycle didn’t just provide transportation and recreation in the 1890s. It influenced entertainment as well, through the songs of Tin Pan Alley. Below: A ‘comic play’ and a two-steph, both from 1896, and both inspired by the Coney Island Bike Path. (LOC)

The Coney Island Bike Path in 1896, running up Ocean Parkway to Prospect Park. I believe this illustrates the opening of the return path, as the original path opened in 1894

I have absolutely no context for this image, but I love it. Taken sometime between 1894-1901 [NYPL]