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Bicycles in America

Compiled by Yasmeen Mughal, Junior Fellow 2017

Man rides a velocipede backwards down the steps of the Capitol Building
A perilous ride.
1 photograph : albumen print on card mount
Platt Brothers, 1884.
Prints & Photographs Division.
Reproduction Number:
LC-DIG-ds-07962 (digital file from original item)
LC-USZ62-21831 (b&w film copy neg.)

"You might as well tell a girl to go to a ball room and not to dance, as to tell her to ride a bicycle and not to ride fast." - E.H. Carter

Internal Resources | External Resources | Selected Bibliography

Life on two wheels has been an integral part of American culture since the early 1800s, where it met the perfect collision of growing cities and technological innovation. From velocipede to today's speedy carbon frames, the bicycle knows innovation just as well as the steam engine or automobile. The resurgence of American bicycling culture in recent years is nostalgic of the significant boom the end of the 19th century.

Developments in transforming transportation, the growing bourgeoisie class, and the burgeoning social movements can be largely attributed to the popularity of the bicycle (though some may argue that the Industrial Revolution played a bigger role). The history of the bicycle in the US is a perfect reflection of industry and society being one in the same.

The Library of Congress collections contain a wide variety of materials, outlining the importance of the bicycle as it is engrained into the national culture. This is just a small selection of many of these materials, particularly those that are available online through the Library's website and beyond.

Digital Collections

American Variety Stage

"A brilliant idea: a comedy sketch" - From the tradition of vaudeville, this play by Maribel Seymour from 1897 provided a satirical commentary on gender identity and the liberation felt and practiced by women of the 19th century. This play comes from the American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920 digital collection. Digitized access is available through the library catalog.

This collection extends to some vaudeville performances of bicycle tricks, available online, or by request through the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound division.

American Women

The American Women series aims to provide a comprehensive history of the impact of women on the national narrative. Included are resources from across divisions, available to search and use. Women's suffrage features prominently.

Frances Willard, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were all avid cyclists and advocates for cycling, among other things, in their day. Their manifestos on women's suffrage include talk of bicycles. Records from the 1891 gathering of The National Council of Women feature the three women, as well as other speakers.

Guides books and magazines written for women during the late-19th century helped make the most of their independence, such as solo-traveling through Europe. Many are available digitally in the collections.

Printed Ephemera: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera

Leaflets and pamphlets in circulations was an effective way to reach mass audiences. Many bicycle clubs used this as a way to share with members upcoming events and news in the cycling world. This collection is digitized on the library's website and features a few on bicycles printed before the turn of the century.

Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers

From a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio to the first flight, Orville and Wilbur Wright's diaries and documents highlight the humble yet innovative beginnings of the pair of brothers.

Included in this collection are many letters, both business and personal, including one letter that mentions a trip to Kitty Hawk. This collection in many ways showcases the rapid growth of technology at the turn of the 20th century.

More information on this collection can be found in this finding aid.


The number of bicycles in production skyrocketed to over a million per year by 1899. Bicycles and their riders demanded their city governments for safer routes of transportation among the streetcars and horse-drawn buggies. This atlas of the Mid-Atlantic region from 1789 is one of the earliest surveys of American interstate roads.

The League of American Wheelmen was a coalition between representatives from the country's most prominent cycling clubs, established in 1880. They published a series of guides for members in the mid-1890's, such as Fifty Miles Around Brooklyn. More guides can be found by searching "League of American Wheelmen" in the Library's catalog.

In local history, the Capital Bicycle Club provided maps of the city with marked routes and color coded streets to aid cyclists in a city not yet paved with asphalt. Avid area cyclists would be quick to note that the highlighting of the roads here is not unlike the Washington area bicycle map provided today by DDOT.External Link (PDF 13.82 MB)


Notated music and sheet music are a large part of the collections in the music division. Songs about bicycles date back to the 1890s, with "Bicycle Built for Two" by Harry Dacre. More recent notated music, such as "Yellow jersey" celebrates the winner of the annual peloton race, Tour De France, where the winner is prized with a yellow jersey.

Historic Sheet Music Collection, 1800 to 1922

Though there isn't a specific collection for bicycle sheet music, this collection features a couple of pieces from 1880 and 1895, respectively. More information about this and other sheet music collections can be found through the division's blog, and through the Performing Arts Reading Room.

Newspapers & Periodicals

Bicycles quickly established their place in urban centers by the mid-19th century. Periodicals played an especially important role in the social culture around the bicycle. More can be found in the catalog, along with a few international entries, by refining your search, under >"Bicycling--Periodicals" or "Cycling--Periodicals" but here are a few selections:

The library also has modern bicycle magazines available in the catalog. These have moved on from the social structures of cycling, and instead, feature new tech and professional racing.

Chronicling America: American Historic Newspapers

This collection focuses on archiving and providing digital access to newspapers and periodicals from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth century. The collection covers a wide variety of topics, including Bicycle Craze and Bicycle Fashion.

Within both of these topics are search strategies as well as selected titles and articles. These two topics focus on the heyday of bicycle culture around the turn of the twentieth century.

Prints & Photographs

The Prints and Photographs Division has a breadth of pre-20th century photographs, posters, and prints from the era. Simple searches in the Prints & Photographs catalog such as "bicycle photograph" or "bicycle poster" will present a wide array of digitized results.

Additionally, searches such as "Bicycles and bicycling," are one of the few searches the yield a rich imagery in women and provide insight into life during the turn of the 20th century. This print from 1895 warns "There will be several varieties of her."

Pictorial Americana

Originally from the 1955 guide to American prints and photograph guide, chronicling images under a variety of historical themes.

Bicycle history can be found under "Sports -- Miscellaneous." There are a few selected images, displaying examples to what lies in the collections. The guide proves search terms and links to the Thesaurus of Graphic Materials for "Cycling."

External Sources

National Museum of American HistoryExternal Link

The Object ProjectExternal Link tells the story of America through the "everyday things that changed everything." Among these are bicyclesExternal Link and the accessories that fostered a new sense of American independence and innovation.

America on the MoveExternal Link examines the role of transportation in history. The bicycle has been a part of the museum's collection since 1889 and has since grown.External Link Explore the artifacts and the history of the bicycleExternal Link on the exhibit's website.
Visitors to Washington, D.C. can visit this exhibit, and others, 10:30am-5:30pm everyday (except December 25).

Goodreads: Bicycle genre tagExternal Link

Healey Library at the University of Massachusetts, Boston: Bicycling CollectionsExternal Link

Indiana University, Lilly Library: Early Cycling BooksExternal Link

Northwestern University: Bicycle LibGuide.External Link This collection also features a virtual exhibit on Frances E. WillardExternal Link

Portland State University: Initiative for Bicycle & Pedestrian Innovation - Research GuideExternal Link

Rutgers University: Historical Bike RoutesExternal Link

DC Public Library: Bikes and BooksExternal Link features guides for biking in the nation's capital, as well as information about their collections.

James Longhurst, author of Bike Battles and University of Wisconsin-La Crosse faculty, is a notable bike historian and activist. He offers a few examples of his work and publications on his website.External Link

For Cyclists

Washington, D.C. area bike resources:

National Bike resources


Selected Bibliography

Primary Sources

A National Bicycle Safety Education Conference. Bike-Ed '77: A Conference Report; Lawrence Johnson & Associates, Inc., Washington, DC, 1977 [Catalog Record]

Byrne, David. Bicycle Diaries. New York : Viking, 2009. [Catalog Record]

Grew, W. F. The cycle industry, London, New York [etc.] Sir I. Pitman & sons, ltd., 1921. [Catalog Record] [Full Text]External Link

Wells, H.G. The wheels of chance; a bicycling idyll. New York, London, The Macmillan company, 1896. [Catalog Record]

League of American Wheelmen. Official Hand Book. New York, 1890. [Catalog Record] [Full Text]External Link

Stetson, Clarence. Why not cycle abroad yourself? What a bicycle trip in Europe costs, how to take it, how to enjoy it, with a narrative of personal tours, illustrations and maps. New York, F. & E. Greenebaum, 1898. [Catalog Record] [Full Text]External Link

U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Bicycle and Pedestrian Data: Sources, Needs, and Gaps; Washington, DC: 2002 [Catalog Record] [Full Text]External Link

Ward, Maria. The common sense of bicycling. New York, Paris, Brentano's, 1896 [Catalog Record] [Full Text]External Link

Willard, Frances E. A Wheel within a Wheel; New York: F.H. Revell, 1895 [Catalog Record] [Full Text]External Link

Secondary Sources

Blue, Elly. Bikenomics. Portland, Oregon : Microcosm Publishing, 2016 [Catalog Record]

Crown, Judith. No hands : the rise and fall of the Schwinn Bicycle Company : an American institution. New York : H. Holt, 1996. [Catalog Record]

Friss, Evan. The cycling city : bicycles and urban America in the 1890s. Chicago : The University of Chicago Press, 2015. [Catalog Record]

Hallenbeck, Sarah. Claiming the bicycle : women, rhetoric, and technology in nineteenth-century America Carbondale : Southern Illinois University Press, 2016. [Catalog Record]

Longhurst, James. Bike Battles: A history of sharing America's roads. Seattle ; London : University of Washington Press, 2015. [Catalog Record]

Macy, Sue. Wheels of change : how women rode the bicycle to freedom (with a few flat tires along the way) Washington, D.C. : National Geographic, 2011. [Catalog Record]

Mapes, Jeff. Pedaling revolution : how cyclists are changing American cities Corvallis, OR : Oregon State University Press, 2009. [Catalog Record]

Mudd, Virginia. Across America on the yellow brick road : cycling into a new life. Santa Fe : Sunstone Press, 2015. [Catalog Record]

Norcliffe, Glen. Critical Geographies of Cycling Burlington, VT : Ashgate Publishing Company, 2015 [Catalog Record]

Sadik-Khan, Janette; Solomonow, Seth. Streetfight : handbook for an urban revolution. New York, New York : Viking, 2016 [Catalog Record]

Withers, Jeremy; Shea, Daniel P. Culture on two wheels : the bicycle in literature and film Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, 2016 [Catalog Record]


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  August 18, 2017
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