“The First” Golden Age of the Bicycle & Popular Music

by Eric Shalit on January 15, 2015

I’m re-publishing this article I wrote some months back in honor of the Seattle Bicycle Music Project & Festival. I think it’s important and amazing to see how what we’re doing today is part of history. When the bicycle first became popular in the late 1800s, people were excited about it in much the same way that many of us are today.

With each article I write about bicycle history, I discover information and artifacts that are completely new and amazing to me. I feel like an archaeologist in a way. While all of this information is available on the web, much of the great stuff is buried deep. My aim is to present what’s interesting and amazing to me, in the hopes that it may be interesting and amazing to you.

I recently stumbled upon one of the collections of Norman Batho, who passed away in 2008. He was an avid collector of things related to bicycles. He amassed a collection of over 400 pieces of 19th Century bicycle sheet music, and converted more than 300 of these old bicycle songs into audible music MP3 files. An effort is being made to create a CD with Norm’s favorite bicycle songs.

Norman Batho wrote, “The bicycle had an extraordinary impact not only on personal mobility, but in every aspect of our culture. One example of how the bicycle penetrated society can be seen in the illustrations on sheet music, which enjoyed wide and popular distribution before the advent of home and commercial recording and playback technology. By studying examples of sheet music from the mid-19th century onward, we can see the evolution of the bicycle and the impact it had on society and popular culture.”

Tens of thousands of bicyclists clogged New York City streets at all hours during the 1890s. The Scorcher March and Two-Step was a popular dance piece written for piano by George Rosey (George. E. Rosenberg) and published at the peak of the bicycle craze in 1897. Fast riders were called “scorchers” for the way they seemed to blaze down the roads. Racers were called “cracks.” Impromptu sprint races between riders meeting on the street were called “drags.” This stylized cover girl is wearing the new “bloomers” which shocked many women who decried women’s cycling. Her bicycle’s frame was designed to accommodate a woman’s skirts.

The period between 1890-1905 approximates what bicycle historians refer to as the “Golden Age of the Bicycle”. This same period overlaps the “Golden Age of Popular Music” in America (1890–1920).

By 1890, the “Safety Bicycle” with its two small wheels of equal size, a chain drive, and gears, replaced the hazardous “Ordinary”, or high-wheel bicycle. With the introduction of the pneumatic tire and improvements in brakes, the number of bicycles in use boomed as yearly production rose from an estimated 200,000 bicycles in 1889 to 1,000,000 in 1899.

By the start of the 20th Century, cycling had become an important means
of transportation, and an increasingly popular form of recreation. Bicycling clubs for men and women spread across the U.S. and across European countries.

Jane Viator of Antiques Roadshow Insider writes, “American popular music enjoyed a golden age from 1890–1920, an era that left a rich legacy of colorful sheet music. And it’s more than a musical legacy: The period’s “sheets,” as they’re called, offer a clear window to the ideas and ideals, concerns and customs of the time that produced them. That’s especially true of the “parlor songs” published by the thousands from the late 1800s through World War I.”

Remember that prior to the phonograph (and later radio, TV, & Nintendo) becoming common in homes, people commonly sat around the piano where they were forced to entertain each other. The sheet music business was big business.

In 1896, women’s rights pioneer Susan B. Anthony said, “I think the bicycle has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”

The L.A.W. or League of American Wheelmen was a prominent advocacy group for the improvement of roads and highways in the U.S. long before the advent of the automobile. The Good Roads Movement in the late 19th century was founded and led by the League, which began publishing Good Roads magazine in 1892.

Norm Batho wrote,“The bicycle also contributed many hours of entertainment through racing and stunt riding. Cycling, and its woes, became common topics at minstrel shows, at bicycle club dinners, in music halls, and variety theaters. Bicycle rags, cake walks, schottisches, gallops, waltzes, and two-steps became common in the dance halls. Alas, the automobile put an end to it all. Only one bicycle song has survived the test of time. This is “Daisy Bell,” also known as “A Bicycle Built for Two”, composed by Harry Dacre in 1892.”

“Daisy Bell,” also known as “A Bicycle Built for Two”, is the most recognized song from the era, composed by Harry Dacre in 1892.

Between 1900 and 1905 the number of bicycle manufacturers in the United States shrank from 312 to 101. Interest in the automobile was only partly responsible for this. Additional factors were a switch to other forms of recreation, and the fact that a considerable number of electric railways took over the sidepaths originally constructed for bicycle use. Thereafter, for over half a century, the bicycle was used largely by children.

Jane Viator of Antiques Roadshow Insider writes, “The golden age of sheet music didn’t last long, however: It ended around 1920. Technology played a big part. As electric power spread, the piano in the front room was replaced by radios, record players, and player pianos.

Music preferences changed, too; ballads and two-steps gave way to more complex rhythms and compositions. Jazz, the new leading music form, was tricky to play and lacked easy to sing verses and choruses. Sheet music continued to be published, but the imaginative cover illustrations gave way to photographs of the performers or the stars of the movies and musicals for which the songs had been written.”

Minstrel music and the minstrel show, one of the earliest indigenous forms of American entertainment, developed in the 1840s, peaked after the Civil War and remained popular into the early 1900s. The minstrel show evolved from two types of entertainment popular in America before 1830: the impersonation of blacks by white actors between acts of plays or during circuses; and the performances of black musicians who sang, with banjo accompaniment, in city streets. While unacceptable in our times, the sheet music of the day is clear documentation of the blatant undisguised racist attitudes that existed in America at the time. Warning: This is one of the milder covers. Oh! Susanna, Dixie, The Camptown Races, Buffalo Gals, and Jim Crack Corn are a few of the popular songs known from the minstrel era that we consider acceptable today.

A common cause of the demise of the golden ages of both the bicycle and of parlor song sheet music were advances in technology, attributed to Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. We’ve been taught to believe technological advancements make our lives better. It’s also worth considering what has been lost along with these advancements.

Additional Resources

The Wheelmen: An organization dedicated to the enjoyment & preservation of our bicycling heritage.

Antiques Roadshow Insider: Vintage sheet music article by Jane Viator.

Smithsonian Institution: America on the Move Exhibit: Bicycle History from the late 19th century

Parlor Songs: Popular Sheet Music from the 1800s to the 1920s. The story of Tin Pan Alley.

Wikipedia: The history of the bicycle.

The Bicycle & the West: T.R. & the Scorcher Squad.

Wikipedia: a history of the Minstrel Show.

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