Track Cycling

Odd Old News: Bicycling—The Exciting New Mode Of Travel and the Evolution of the Bicycle Saddle – Redheaded Blackbelt


Four Horse Team Pulling Large Group on Wagon and a man with a bicycle. [Image from the Palmquist Collection in the Humboldt Room of HSU]

Nuggets of old news is served up once a week by David Heller, one of our local historians.

In the last decades of the 19th century, Humboldt County witnessed the arrival of a new innovation in land travel—bicycling. In addition to the customary means of travel via walking, horseback, carts and wagons, the bicycle provided an easy and healthful way to get around. There was a nationwide surge of interest in bicycling in the 1890’s, due in part to the new design of the “safety bike” that took the place of the “high-wheeler” or “penny-farthing”. The first design to be called a bicycle, the “high-wheeler” featured a large front wheel that generated a lot of speed and distance for each pedal revolution, but was challenging to ride. The “safety bike” with its modern frame design was so named because it lessened the danger, and distance of falling, and made bicycling accessible to both sexes.

First, a look at the hazards of riding the “high wheeler”:

Studio portrait of a young man standing in front of a high wheeler bicycle [Image from the Palmquist Collection in the Humboldt Room of HSU]

“A bicycle is dangerous, not when it is in motion, but when it is at rest. It is then that it throws its rider and tramples on him viciously. When the novice tries to get on his bicycle he falls over and under it two or three times. If he once gets started at a fair pace, it will be docile until the fatal moment comes when he must try to dismount. As soon as the speed of the bicycle is checked it begins to wobble like a dying top, and if the inexperienced rider can dismount without falling off, he is exceptionally lucky. The only way to avoid this humiliating method is to hire a man to catch the bicycle and hold it. Of course, after long practice the bicyclist is able to mount and dismount eight or nine times out of ten without an accident; but the certainty that an inexperienced rider must end his ride by lying on the ground with his legs almost inextricably tangled with the spokes of the driving wheel deters timid souls from becoming bicyclists”(Humboldt Times, 7/1/1880).

Men and women posing with bicycles at edge of forest[Image from the Palmquist Collection in the Humboldt Room of HSU]

For obvious reasons the safety bicycle overtook the high wheeler for popularity in the late 1880’s, and what had largely been a racing sport for men was opened up to the public, and became a women’s rights issue:

Lilian Whitney, the Boston correspondent of the Chicago Inter-Ocean, says she thinks women, as a rule, have the best time in the world, but she does wish it was allowable for women to ride bicycles. She says she would rather ride a bicycle than vote. Lilian should be encouraged. There is surely no more healthful, graceful or delightful exercise than bicycling, and there is no good reason why it should he wholly monopolized by the male sex. A pretty riding habit could be devised that would admit of ladies sitting upon the bicycle in a proper manner, and at the same time conform to every requirement of modesty. The exercise would be far less dangerous, quite as healthful, and more economical than horseback riding. A company of one hundred lady bicyclists riding about five abreast, would constitute a splendid feature of a Fourth of July procession. San Jose Mercury”(Humboldt Times, 6/8/1883).

As bicycles trickled into the county by ship in the 1890’s, their popularity grew and a diversity of brands were sold by regular merchants. Pneumatic tires, stiffer frames, and bicycle umbrellas were just a few of the many innovations to occur during the “bike boom”. As bicycle traffic grew, sharing the road was a concept that took a while to catch on.

‘Korbel, July 2. -Would you be so kind and state in the columns of your valuable paper what are some e of the rules and regulations governing the public traffic of the county roads in regards to vehicles? and if a bicycle is recognized as a vehicle? These riding bicycles claim that when they meet a team on the road they have a right to one half of the road, but some of those who have charge of the horses do not seem to understand it that way, and they either give the bicycle about six inches or force it out of the road altogether, Of course, where there are plenty of good common sense and good manners, there is usually no trouble occurring between bicyclists and teamsters(Blue Lake Advocate, 7/6/1895).

Good manners weren’t always practiced, in Blue Lake, “a bibulous gentry” of bicyclists provoked conflict with horsemen.

Speaking of bicycles, an irrepressible conflict is in progress at the park between the wheelmen and the horsemen. The first-named complain that the horsemen ignore them, try to run over them and in every way aim to discourage their presence on the driveway. The horsemen, on the other hand, affirm in the language more emphatic than euphonious that the wheelmen purposely get in the way of the horses, purposely frighten the animals with their bells and whistles, and they declare their intention of trying to run down every hoodlum destitute of the gentility to behave himself. Then again there is discord in the ranks of the cyclers themselves. It is averred by sundry of them with considerable heat that the park is patronized of evenings by a contingent who drink too much beer. When beer is in, brains are out, and these bibulous gentry having lost their heads proceed to violate every article in the wheelman’s creed, riding at dangerous rates of speed, not infrequently on the wrong side of the track, and inviting collision, disaster and death. Every once in a while some wheelman or unfortunate pedestrian inadvertently climbs the golden stair as a result of this circular madness”(Blue Lake Advocate, 11/9/1895).

Bicycling was called the “greatest physical modification in the conditions of modern life”, providing exercise for all ages, and an inexpensive means of travel for workers during the mid 1890’s nationwide depression. However, none of us should be sorry that we missed the trial and error bicycle seat design era. The bicycle “saddle” underwent numerous modifications to enhance comfort, safety, hygiene, allowing for a health-enhancing form of exercise.

Humboldt Times
June 1, 1897
IT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR OF HEALTHFUL CYCLING. Immense Advance Made In The Production– Hygienic Hints on Saddle Adjustment–Statistics That Rebound (greatly to the Credit of the Wheels)

A late tour of several large bicycle establishments shows the immense advance that has been made in the production of the saddle, this sine qua non of comfort awheel. In 1880 a block of wood at the back, attached to a frame of wire and covered with leather, was thought to make a good saddle, but after a little use the saddle began to remind one of the ridgepole of a house, and the rider often experienced such discomfort as to make him buy a new one, if it did not cause him to quit riding altogether.

In the evolution of the anatomically correct and hygienically perfect saddle of today its relation to the human body has been closely studied by the ablest anatomical experts, and it is found that the great desideratum is to make the weight of the body rest on the points of bone scientifically known as the tuberosities of the ischium and the gluteal muscles, just as it does in the act of sitting, while it must be so constructed as to protect the perineal region from irritation. It is found that these conditions are best met by a seat which, while containing an element of rigidity, also has sufficient resiliency for a rebound.

In one style of saddle, of which 250,000 were sold in six months, the rigidity is secured by a peculiar weave of rattan—the immemorial material of chair bottoms—which never “sags,” thus maintaining a constant level. This is the essential part of the saddle, but it is covered with felt and leather, having a V shaped opening in the middle, cut after the direction of physicians who have made a study of it. The idea of this weaving has been also carried out in thongs of leather.

Another type of saddle has a firm base of metal. On this base two pads are firmly fixed, with a permanent groove between. It has two coil springs underneath and a short horn. This fulfills all the conditions needful save possibly one —some dealers will assure you that there must be continuity at the back and fortify the statement with what seem forcible hygienic reasons. Borne must ingenious two pad saddles are shown, in which the turning of a screw broadens the distance between the pads ala opera glass. Then a step further in the anatomical line is made by the use of modeling clay, in which a composite impression of a number of persons of similar size and proportions is made the basis of the form of the saddle, with all parts cut out or depressed that could cause injurious pressure. This is covered with felt and leather and would seem to be “anatomical” to the last degree. No two persons can wear with equal comfort the same glove or shoe, and why should not the individual be fitted with a saddle? It would seem that the limit of improvement had about been reached, but we find a pneumatic saddle praised and condemned like all the rest by rival dealers. The quickest way in which to learn the points liable to failure is to read the advertisements of rival dealers. One says “no rash,” another “no heating,’’ another “no numbness of the knees or feet after the longest runs,” etc., and one “there is no doctor’s bill in ours ”.

To sum up, while a saddle should be rigid, it should have resiliency enough to go over small roughnesses in the road with no “rocky” feeling left us an aftermath, and it should be adjusted with more painstaking than is generally bestowed on it. People do not pay enough attention to the hygienic significance of the word “comfort”. What were the sensations of discomfort given us for save to tell us when things are going wrong? A saddle should neither tilt too far back nor too far forward. The reach to the pedal should be exactly right. Then the rider is ready to enjoy to the fullest extent what may be called the greatest physical modification in the conditions of modern life, and it is pleasant to learn that makers are catering more to the needs of the average public. Heretofore the racer has dominated the situation—weight must be lessened to the last degree. Now people are using heavier wheels, say 25 pounds in place of 18 pounds.

When perfectly equipped, the rider is still amenable to the rules of that wise judgment we call common sense. He doesn’t want to start out with the rapidity of a racer; that interesting creature, when riding for large sums, begins very moderately, nor does he want to exhaust all his vital force on one ride. Doing this has led some doctors to impeach the desirability of the wheel; but, given a good wheel, a hygienic saddle carefully adjusted and a fairly level road, and even delicate persons can derive great benefit from its use.
The most sinking testimony to its hygienic value comes from Dr. Abbott, secretary of the Massachusetts board of health. He finds that in the year 1896 fewer women than men died in the state from consumption, the first time such a thing has occurred. He attributes it to the use of the wheel, the only important recent modification in their mode of life —Chicago Post.

(Next week in Odd Old News, the saga of a headline grabbing bicycle thief)

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