Thursday, March 13, 2008

Q&A: Great grandmother's "wheel"

Q: Dear Mr. Langley,
I've been reading my Great Grandmother's diary. She was born in 1885 in Maine. When she was 15, she worked and saved money for a "wheel" that she purchased and rode. I was thinking that she must have meant "bike." I learned that bikes with big front wheels were called "highwheels," but I couldn't imagine someone riding one of those in a dress. Were bikes called "wheels" in those days?

Thanks for your time,

A: Thanks for the email, Karen. She did mean bike but at the time bicycles were commonly called wheels. The highwheel, which was more commonly called the ordinary in its day because it was the ordinary bike everyone rode, was only popular for about 10 years, from about 1878 to 1890. Then came the safety bicycles. By 1900, when your great grandmother was looking for a wheel, she would have been buying a bike similar in many ways to the bikes we ride today, with same-size wheels, lightweight parts, probably wood rims, pneumatic tires and even a brake. Below is an illustration from 1898 showing such a bike and rider. Notice how nicely the cyclists dressed then. Also, note that they're resting their feet on little pegs attached to the front fork. That's because bikes did not freewheel yet so they couldn't coast with their feet on the pedals. It's also interesting that before the safety bicycle came along most women didn't ride because it was considered taboo by society for them to ride highwheels. Once the safety was available women took to cycling in a big way and it actually helped launch the women's liberation movement.

You're lucky to have a diary to read about this in. I bet it's a fascinating story.

Thanks for sharing,

Bicycles were called wheels at the turn of the century

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