Guest post by James Longhurst

Wheel Fever2
An Elliott Hickory — 1891-1893 — hickory rims and spokes, from the La Crosse County Historical Society collection.

 

There’s a bicycle renaissance in America right now, featuring bike share programs in major cities, more bike lanes, increasing numbers of commuters, and new advocacy groups injecting much-needed energy into long-established discussions of bicycles and their place on the road. This 21st century bike boom has also attracted the attention of all kinds of academics and scholars in urban design, politics, history and the culture of bicycling. Many of the books and articles these scholars produce are only read by a small audience of academics; they are fairly arcane and impenetrable for the general public. But a small number of these projects attempt to take scholarly interests and communicate them in an interesting and approachable way.

 

Volunteers from the La Crosse County Historical Society set up historic bikes for the event.
Volunteers from the La Crosse County Historical Society set up historic bikes for the event.

On March 27, the authors of one of these new books on the history of bicycling came to La Crosse, and presented their research to a large audience from the campus and the community. Nicholas Hoffman and Jesse J. Gant are the authors of Wheel Fever: How Wisconsin Became a Great Bicycling State, out from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press in 2013. Hoffman is Chief Curator at the History Museum at the Castle in Appleton, Wisconsin; Gant is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and currently on a research fellowship at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington D.C.

 

Their book, Wheel Fever argues that the conflict over bicycling in the 1890s — in which the social and cultural symbolism of bicycling was constantly contested between middle-class men, adventurous women, aspiring African Americans, and practically-minded workers — is a means of understanding why riding a bike is strangely politicized even today. As the authors put it, riding a bike has been political from the start: the bicycle “has been defined by a rich and often impassioned debate over who should be allowed to ride, where they could ride, and even what they could wear.” The authors argue that there are two forces – one group who sees the bicycle as a threat to traditional social order; and another group who see “democratic possibilities” through which the bicycle might assist in remaking society for the better.

 

Gant and Hoffman’s research is an example of social history, sometimes referred to as “history from the bottom up.” These are the stories of how everyday people – not just leaders and rulers – experienced the events of history and shaped their own lives. It’s not a new approach; historians have been working on these sorts of projects for more than four decades. But this approach might be new to non-historians, and so the public talk on the UW-L campus was an opportunity to bring two worlds together.

 

This mix of the popular and scholarly is most obvious in Chapter 5, “The Troubled Beginnings of Wheel Fever.” This chapter puts Wisconsin bicycling into context with the racial ideology of the 1890s, connecting bicycle history to prominent scholarly works. This kind of approach has already transformed our understanding of the “White City” at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The chapter concludes that “In the end, the exclusionary culture of the early 1890s, which reached a peak during the 1893 World’s Fair, put on full display the cultural limitations that would plague early cycling in the Badger State.” It would be easy to celebrate the positive legacies of bicycling in the Wisconsin; but while Wheel Fever does that, it also addresses the complexities and contradictions of race, class, and gender even when in the pursuit of the history of a “great bicycling state.”

Wheel Fever3 

The event on March 27 was meant to bring together the popular and the scholarly on the subject of the bicycle – with support from a variety of academic departments on campus, as well as the Wisconsin Bike Federation, and historic bicycle displays from the La Crosse Historical Society, the event brought students from economics, history and physical education together with cyclists and bike advocates from the community. With a lively Q & A, book signing and reception, it was an excellent way to spend a rainy night, and shows a building interest in cycling and its scholarship in the La Crosse community.

 

Missed the event? You can hear Gant and Hoffman interviewed on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Newsmaker program, with discussion of La Crosse bike history, at http://www.wpr.org/listen/559351

 

— guest post by James Longhurst, Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse

 

 

 

Sidebar: Scholarly books about bicycling. From different academic disciplines, these are books meant to advance knowledge about the bicycle’s past and present, and are not as widely read as books written for a popular audience by journalists or bicycle advocates.

 

 

Luis A. Vivanco, Reconsidering the Bicycle: An Anthropological Perspective on a New (Old) Thing, Routledge, 2013.

 

Written for the college classroom; includes both historical and current observations on the cultural meaning of bicycles and their riders.

 

 

Glen Norcliffe, Ride to Modernity: The Bicycle in Canada, 1869-1900, University of Toronto Press, 2001.

 

The bicycle as a symbol of “modernity” and mass consumer culture in the late 19th century.

 

 

Christopher Armstrong, H. V. Nelles, The Revenge of the Methodist Bicycle Company: Sunday Streetcars and Municipal Reform in Toronto, 1888 – 1897, Oxford University Press, 2010.

 

An enjoyable but complicated story of urban politics, corruption and transportation policy.

 

 

Dave Horton, Paul Rosen and Peter Cox, eds., Cycling and Society, Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2007.

 

Several different approaches to understanding cycling from the perspective of European scholars, especially sociologists.

 

 

John Pucher and Ralph Buehler, eds., City Cycling, Boston: MIT Press, 2012.

 

Collection of articles bringing data-driven scholarship to understanding bicycle policy internationally.

 

 

Wiebe Bijker, Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995.

 

Using the technological development of the bicycle as a case study in what was known as the “social construction of technology” or SCOT debate in the history of technology.

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