Mobility for the Masses Transcript

Aug 29, 2018

Back to the Mobility for the Masses episode.

Christine Hill [At start of Queen City Bicycle Club ride]: Hello…I’m Christine. Thanks for coming to Queen City Bicycle Club this month. The idea is that we get together—women, trans, femme cyclists—we ride around with this boom box. It’s a pretty low-key ride, we’re not going to wear anyone out tonight.

Christine Hill leads group rides for the Queen City Bicycle Club.

[Sounds of group cycling through Burlington]

Christine: The name Queen City Bicycle Club came from Luis. Because part of his presentation about bicycle history in Burlington was talking about bicycling clubs in the early 1900s.

[more ambient sound]

Christine Hill: And one of those clubs was called Queen City Bicycle Club. And there’s a photo of all the club men lined up outside of Fletcher Free Library.

Luis Vivanco: Elite men were the first to take up bicycles.

Luis Vivanco is an anthropology professor at UVM, and the author of “Reconsidering the Bicycle: An Anthropological Perspective on a New (Old) Thing.”

Luis: Wealthy men who could afford these expensive machines who wanted to appear very modern. Because the physical training and control over, especially early on, these high-wheeled bicycles, was quite substantial, and so one of the ways you could show your distinctions, your social and physical distinction, was to master one of these “wheels.” And who has time and money to do it? It’s wealthy men.

Christine: I was trying to name the club to be something really inclusive because it used to be called Girls Ride Out and I wanted to be more inclusive of all genders, and all of sudden, Queen City Bicycle Club occurred to me and I thought, “What an awesome opportunity to completely repurpose this name and have it empower the exact people who were totally not included back in the original Queen City Bicycle Club.”

A large group of female and non-binary cyclists, riding around Burlington on a summer evening. It’s fun. Maybe even liberating.

Many Vermonters felt a similar sense of liberation during our nation’s first “bike boom” in the 1890s. That was when bikes became cheaper and easier to ride. They revolutionized personal transportation and recreation.

The mobility a bike offered was especially important to women. But 125 years later, bike culture can still feel like a boys club.

Christine: I go to a lot of bicycle events, mountain bike festivals and rides and fundraiser rides, and some of them are great, most of them are painful because it’s this really bro-y, machismo culture.

Christine worked as a mechanic at The Old Spokes Home in Burlington. She also helped launch the city’s Greenride bike sharing program.

Christine: When someone’s surprised that you’re even at an event, it just makes you feel that much less comfortable being there. You just kinda wanna exist and be yourself, but people are like, “Wow, you’re here. That’s crazy.” It’s like, “Is it? I wish it weren’t.”

Today we’ll talk about this invention that brought mobility to millions. And we’ll explore the longtime struggle between those who biked for liberation, and those who biked for status.

This is Before Your Time, presented by the Vermont Historical Society, the Vermont Humanities Council, and VTDigger. I’m your host, Lovejoy. Every episode we go inside the stacks at the Vermont Historical Society to look at an object from their permanent collection that tells us something unique about our state. Then we take a closer look at the people, the events, or the ideas that surround each artifact.

Today, Mary Labate Rogstad is showing our producer Ryan Newswanger a small metal pin from the Historical Society’s collections.

It’s purple and gold, and measures about three-quarters of an inch wide.

Mary Labate Rogstad: It’s sort of a circle with wings coming out on either side, and the monogram, “VWC,” Vermont Wheel Club.  And the Vermont Wheel Club, actually, that name came into existence in 1885.

When the first bicycles came to Vermont, riding alone was discouraged. People joined clubs.

Mary: I was able to find this really interesting article from the Vermont Wheel Club of Brattleboro, from the May 1896 issue of The Vermonter. It’s really informative, and it’s not at all the club that I thought it was before I read this. It sounds like it’s essentially a social club.

Mary: It says, the “caliber” of young men they have welcomed into the club: “including nearly all of the leading young men of the place, and several businessmen, and elements of high social success besides the mental strengthening that comes from such association of bright and progressive young men, and such utilization in writing, reading, conversation, and healthful recreation of their leisure moments.”

Ryan Newswanger: Wow. So they were looking for a certain type of person.

Mary: They were looking for a certain type of person.

The Vermont Wheel Club was one of many bike clubs that sprung up around Vermont in the 1880s and 1890s. It was probably the most influential biking club in the state, and its members helped lead movements to improve roads in Vermont and allow bikes to be carried on trains.

But the bikes these people were riding looked a little different from the ones we’re used to.

[Sound of Glenn climbing the stairs]

Glenn Eames: So some of the machines in here are quite unique.

This is Glenn Eames, the founder of the Old Spokes Home bike shop. Glenn has collected dozens of bicycles that are significant to the sport’s history.

Glenn: Back here against the wall, that S-shaped machine, that’s one of the first velocipedes built in New York City by Calvin Witty. There are two known in the United States, that’s one of them.

Glenn: This is a top-of-the-line racing bike from England, from the late 1930s and it has a four-speed internal hub.

[sound of rear wheel turning]

Glenn: You can hear those pawls clicking, just love that lovely sound…

Glenn: And this is a beautiful G&J Light Roadster from 1899. It has a very sweet little bell on it too as well.

[sound of bell]

Glenn started biking after he left the Navy in the early 1970s. He was looking for a way to quit smoking and get some exercise. Biking did that and more. He liked it so much that he and his partner toured around the world on bicycles for two years.

He bought his first antique bike out of a shop window in New Hampshire. Soon, he was hooked on biking history.

Glenn: I discovered how popular cycling was from about 1867 or so until the turn of the 1900s. That four-decade period was just an amazing period of transformation, personal transportation, and the bicycle played a huge role.

The first bikes arrived in Vermont in the 1860s. They were known as velocipedes.

Glenn: It’s basically two wagon wheels, wooden wheels, with a suspension spring and a seat.

The velocipedes had another name: “boneshakers.” They earned this nickname for good reason: wooden wheels on rough roads.

Glenn: People used to do road maintenance by plowing their fields, taking all the stone that cropped up, and just dumping it out on the main highway. And the wagon traffic and horse traffic would just grind it into the mud.

Slightly more comfortable were the penny farthings, or “ordinary” bikes, which were popular in the 1870s and 1880s. These had an enormous front wheel, and a small back wheel. When someone says, “old-fashioned bicycle,” you probably picture a penny farthing.

They were faster than the bone-shakers. But just getting up on the seat was a challenge.

Glenn took a penny farthing onto the street in the Old North End to show us how it’s done. He makes it sound easier than it actually is.

Glenn: The way you do it is, there’s a small step over the rear wheel. You put your left foot on the step, you grab the handles, and you give yourself a little bit of a hop, and throw yourself up the saddle, and away you go.

You can see a video of this at beforeyourtime dot org.

So these things, it’s like pedaling a giant flywheel. Once you get this thing rolling, you’re just cruising along at maybe 15 miles an hour.

The bigger the wheel, the faster you could go. And people traveled amazing distances on these bikes. They rode across the country. They climbed over and down the Donner Pass in California. Glenn himself has ridden a penny farthing for 100 miles in one day.

But it certainly wasn’t easy.

Glenn: It’s a fixed gear so you’re pedaling all the time. So you can’t coast. The way you go downhill on one of those things is to throw your legs over the handlebars.

Glenn: Hit a stone, pothole, a dog, all of a sudden your front wheel stops, you go over the bars and land on your head.

The inherent danger of the penny farthing kept the average person from owning one.

Glenn: The other thing is, they were quite expensive. It’s about six months wages, say 135 to 150 bucks to buy one of these bicycles. So the first riders were really people of wealth, attorneys, doctors and whatever and it was mostly a man’s club.

Glenn: The clothing style plus the social norm or etiquette of the day would have prevented women from just going out and riding these things.

That changed with the introduction of the “safety bicycle” in the mid-1880s. These bikes looked more or less like modern bicycles. But it took a little time for them to take hold.

Glenn: They were kind of relegated to the back of the catalogs because what man would want to ride that little wimpy thing with two equal sized wheels. You’d want to ride the ordinary, a big bicycle. People soon realized how fast they were, how safe they were, and what a better design they were, and it opened the market to women, of course.

As more and more women started riding safety bicycles, the manufacturers responded. Glenn showed us one from  his collection.

Glenn: This particular bicycle is a late 1890s women’s safety bicycle, 1898. It’s a Stearns Yellow Fellow ladies’ machine, model C. It’s got a wooden fender on the rear, and it’s got dress guard lacing. That would keep your skirt or bloomers from fouling in the rear wheel or in the chain.

Bikes changed everything in personal transportation. Sure, there were trains, but they only went to specific points, and only at certain times of the day. Horses took time to feed, groom, and harness. Bikes were just faster.

Glenn: It was the great emancipator and equalizer. Now, everybody, man and woman, could go out and travel wherever they wanted to.

Glenn: People could ride 20 miles out of town, start to meet that woman in the other community, attend a different church, attend different social functions. The whole strata of society began to change and a lot of it was from the advent of the safety bicycle.

Luis: Well, the safety bike comes, prices start dropping, more and more women can take to these things, and they take it on with gusto. It’s giving them unprecedented freedoms.

This is Luis Vivanco – the anthropologist we heard up top. Luis commutes by bike to his job at UVM.

And one of the first things that women take umbrage to is the restrictive clothing that they’re wearing at the time. And so hand in hand with the rise of bicycling comes what’s been called the “rational clothing movement,” which was one manifestation of the suffrage movement.

In 1896, equal rights champion Susan B. Anthony said that biking “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” A woman on a bicycle, she continued, “presents the picture of free and untrammeled womanhood.”

But not everyone was a fan.

Luis: There was a backlash among temperance women who saw the bicycle as this threat to morality, public morality. They were concerned that there’s all these young women who want to get out there and ride their bicycles, and they thought that that would lead to the ruin of these young women as they’re unchaperoned out on city streets.

Luis: And there was one wonderful little excerpt from the Burlington Free Press in 1896 about the challenges of selecting a cycling instructor that women in particular would face, because as the article says, any bike shop will send up a “oily mechanic” to help the purchaser learn how to ride the bike, but as the article continues, it says that falling into the arms of some oily mechanic is violating a sense of propriety. Maybe you should do that with a relative instead.

Women weren’t the only group challenging the established order.

Luis: Black wheelmen, black men on bicycles was a direct challenge to those elite white men who were the early adopters of bikes in the 1880s.

The League of American Wheelmen was a national organization that brought together biking clubs from around the country. And this group had real power. They could influence the passage of laws.

At one point, the league pushed for national “Good Roads” laws, which would require states to make roads safer for bicycles.

Luis: What happened was that by the early 1890s, there are enough black people in the South who are taking to bicycles that the members of the League of American Wheelmen in the South went to the other members and they said, “Either you institute a ‘no blacks’ rule for the League of American Wheelman, or we pull out of this thing altogether and you can kiss Good Roads goodbye.”

So in 1894, the League of American Wheelmen officially banned African-Americans from membership.

But these exclusive groups were swimming against the tide. Bikes were no longer an item that only the wealthy could afford.

Luis: That Burlington Bicycle Club that formed in the mid-1880s, a lot of those men were the most important wealthy men in Burlington. They abandoned their club, and they all went and created the Burlington Yacht Club, or the Lake Champlain Yacht Club.

Luis: This was a reflection of their desire to have status. What drew them to the bike in the first place was status and distinction. But as someone realizes you can get a fancy boat and you can have a yacht, that’s an even greater sign of status.

The biking boom in the United States lasted from 1890 to about 1910. But near the end of this era, a new, even greater status symbol started to capture our attention.

Luis: The fetish of the automobile displaces what was back then a fetish around the bike. People were so excited about that, but then the automobile becomes the symbol of advancement and progress, and state policy, and as a result, we think through automobiles. And there’s this sort of evolutionary hierarchy that puts the automobile up here and maybe the motorcycle somewhere here, and then the bicycle way down.

That ranking has meant that bicyclists have had to fight for space on roads for well over a century. But that doesn’t stop loyal riders like Christine Hill.

Christine Hill: I mean, bikes are just such a practical way to get around Burlington. If you live and work in the downtown area, everything’s like a three-mile radius, a 15-minute bike ride. A bike can get you to 80 percent of the places that you need to go.

Christine was a student at UVM when she first started riding around Burlington. Eventually, biking led her to a new community.

[ambient sounds of the Community Workshop]

Christine: A friend told me that there was this shop, Bike Recycle Vermont, where if you volunteered they would teach you how to work on bikes in exchange for your time volunteering at the shop. So I just walked in randomly one day and said, “I want to learn how to work on bikes and I want to volunteer,” and started showing up twice a week to the shop to help out.

Bike Recycle Vermont is now called the Old Spokes Home Community Workshop. It’s right across the street from the Old Spokes Home store on North Winooski Avenue.

Christine: What I got was a basic education around mechanics, for sure, but the real value was that the shop connected all kinds of people in Burlington, and as a student at UVM living on campus for the most part up to that point, living in my little college bubble, I had zero exposure to that.

The non-profit Community Workshop offers affordable bikes and bike repairs to income-eligible Vermonters.

Christine: I would be working on a stand next to another volunteer who was a 72-year-old retired researcher, and there would be a 14-year-old neighborhood kid who brought his bike in to fix it himself, and we’d be serving a homeless veteran, and we’d be serving a family of people who had just resettled from West Africa last year. And it was just this unbelievable place where I was interacting with all kinds of people.

[ambient sounds of the Community Workshop]

Christine eventually got a job at the Old Spokes Home. She helped train teenagers in basic bike mechanics and joined them as they provided free bike repairs in affordable housing areas.

Kids and teens come to the Community Workshop several times a week to help out around the shop, and to learn to work on their bicycles from the staff and volunteers.

[ambient sounds of the Community Workshop]

The mission of the Community Workshop underscores that bikes should be for everyone. And it helps reclaim that old sense of liberation and independence that riders first felt in the 1890s.

Christine: I’m thinking of this one woman, Kathy, who we’ve served for years and years and years at the Old Spokes Home Community Workshop who’s lived in the Old North End her entire life. And she got a bike from us for $25 a few years ago and she comes in every few months to have us tweak it a little bit. She rides the thing every day, in the winter too.

Christine said Kathy has a house-cleaning business and uses her bike to get to cleaning jobs, which can be miles apart.

Christine: And over the years we’ve added a basket on the front, and baskets on the rear so she can carry her groceries. She does everything on it. She’s completely independent, she’s able to leave and come as she needs to, and she doesn’t need a car to get back and forth. So she has financial independence as well.

Bikes can make practical sense. But they can be a lot of fun, too.

Christine: The history of mountain biking is fascinating, because it was really just a bunch of hippies living in the Bay Area in the 70s who were like, “Wouldn’t it be sweet if we took these old World War II coaster brake bikes and rode them down Mount Tam?” And they would ride these things so fast that the hubs on the rear wheel would start smoking and they would wrap bacon in tin foil and tape it to the hub to cook the bacon. I mean, they were like long-haired, hippy, renegade. They were just ridiculous. And that’s the most badass thing you can do is just ride whatever bike you have, hard. And we love that.

Bikes were liberating, for hippies in California in the 1970s. For women and people of color in the 1890s. For Vermonters in the Old North End today.

Luis: There’s a whole different experience on a bicycle. People often referred to it as “That must be how the birds feel.” That sensation of minimal effort to produce the wind rushing through your hair.

Christine: That feeling of total independence. Being able to take yourself to new places and experience new things on your own. For me, bike touring was the way that I self-actualized. When I started camping and carrying everything that I needed to survive on my bike, I sort of came into myself and realized that I was capable of a lot more than I thought.

Glenn: I call it the transformer. It transformed my life and how I see and experience the planet. And it really had a transformative impression on the minds of 19th century men and women. It really changed people’s experiences. You read the accounts of people riding back then and how they experience the road, et cetera, and it’s contemporary. We’re having the same experiences now.

Glenn: So it’s constantly evolving. We have fat bikes now, carbon bikes, gravel bikes, mountain bikes, et cetera. People are still changing up the machine and still having the same experiences from a bicycle saddle. It’s pretty amazing.

Before Your Time is presented by the Vermont Historical Society, the Vermont Humanities Council, and VTDigger. This episode was produced by Ryan Newswanger and Mike Dougherty, with help from Mary Labate Rogstad. Thanks to our guests, Christine Hill, Luis Vivanco, and Glenn Eames. Thanks as well to Zack and Tom at the Old Spokes Home Community Workshop. Glenn asked us to mention that he’s seeking a venue where he can display the 75 antique bikes in his collection — if you have any ideas, get in touch.

Before Your Time comes out every month. Search for it and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. And if you like what you hear, tell a friend to check it out. You can find photos and artifacts related to this episode — and a tutorial on how to mount a penny farthing — on our website: before your time dot org. Thanks for listening.