Monday, March 11, 2013

The Heyday of Bicycles in Schenectady, 1890-1910

Two women stop during a bicycle ride around the Schenectady area, ca. 1900. Women's participation in the bicycle craze during the 1890s led to the decline of corsets, inspired "common-sense" dress, and allowed greater mobility for women. Women also joined men as members of cycling clubs formed during this period. Many suffragists and women's rights advocates saw the bicycle as a mechanism for women's freedom; in 1896, Susan B. Anthony told New York World reporter Nellie Bly, "I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate woman than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives her a feeling of self reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammelled womanhood." Photograph from Larry Hart Collection.

Like other localities across the United States, the closing years of the nineteenth century and the opening years of the twentieth century served as the peak of the popularity and ubiquity of the bicycle in Schenectady. Although bicycles existed in various forms as early as 1817, the popularity of bicycles mushroomed nationwide in the 1890s due to the development and mass production of the safety bicycle. Before this time, bicycles (such as the "high wheel" type) were mostly used by young men for sport. The creation of the safety bicycle ushered in the bicycle's widespread use for affordable, everyday transportation for people of all ages, including women.

Undated photograph of bicycle shed at the General Electric Works in Schenectady. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Local bicycle dealers and repair shops were first listed in Schenectady directories beginning in 1892; by the turn of the century, there were fifteen. Some dealers, such as the People's Cycle Company, Schenectady Cycle Company, and Weber Cycle Company, focused solely on selling bicycles and accessories and making repairs, while other businesses sold bicycles alongside their sporting goods. Cycling groups were formed in the region, and Schenectadians such as W.E. Underhill and William C. Vrooman joined the League of American Wheelmen, a national organization for cyclists that advocated for improved roads and highways. Bicycle parades and races were held throughout the region.

Advertisement for the Weber Cycle Company in the 1896 Schenectady City Directory. 

Outside a Schenectady bicycle shop, ca. 1895. Photograph from Larry Hart Collection. 

During the 1890s, a cinder sidepath was built along the south side of Route 5 (State Street / Central Avenue) between Schenectady and Albany, and was made specifically for bicycles. Schenectady resident Russell Fradgley remembered paying $1.00 per year for a license to use the sidepath in 1903. "Spotters" were stationed along the route to check that a badge was visible on passing bicycles. Those without a badge were subject to a 10-cent toll. Fradgley, a member of the Albany Bicycle Club, earned several medals for one-day bike rides of more than 100 miles. "We often rode from Albany to about three miles west of Amsterdam, back to Albany, then to Schenectady and return. That would make up the 100 miles," he recalled. "We used the paths all the way and zipped past the traffic of that day. We had papers signed along the route to prove we made the trip."

A group of young Schenectadians relax with bicycles, banjo, and songbook, ca. 1909. Photograph from Larry Hart Collection. 

A boy rides his bicycle near the foot of Washington Avenue in Schenectady, ca. 1890. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

1 comment:

  1. The great thing about cycling is that it has always been fun for both women and men since the very first bikes!