The quest to include every possible National [something] Week or Month continues! National Bike Month (May) is sponsored by the League of American Bicyclists, a group that traces its founding to 1880 as the League of American Wheelmen (LAW). This national group had local chapters and divisions, and held annual “meets” where members participated in races, training, and occasional lobbying. (The LAW is often credited with helping to get roads paved across the country, before the advent of the automobile.)

These two ribbons (identical except for the extra metal badges or charms on the left) came from the 13th Annual LAW Meet, held in Washington, DC in 1892. Both also include the awesome slogan (catchphrase?) of the Arlington Wheelmen: “Wha! Who! Wha!!” My assumption is that this group was from Arlington, Virginia, though some sources indicate they were based in DC.  The ribbons were donated to MCHS by John Sumner Wood, Sr., who was born too late to have participated in this meet himself; unfortunately, we don’t know if they came from his family, or if he collected cycling-related memorabilia.  As always, click the photos to get a better look.

Cycling history enthusiasts can find a variety of LAW journals and Sporting Life newspapers online; I haven’t found one that details the activities of the Arlington Wheelmen (though they are mentioned in various cycling races during the 1890s), but the Federal Highway Administration’s day-by-day history describes the 1892 meet:

“In addition to holding parades, conducting championship bicycle races, and visiting the White House, participants lobb[ied] for General Roy Stone’s bill calling for a National Highway Commission to make a ‘general inquiry into the condition of highways in the United States, and means for their improvement, and especially the best method of securing a proper exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exposition of approved appliances for road making, and of providing for public instruction in the art during the Exposition.’”

Why the need for a national organization that lobbied for the rights of cyclists? Bicycles were all the rage in the late 1800s – according to the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, one-third of all 1890s patent applications were related to cycling technology – but they were somewhat controversial. Safety was a concern; bikes could be dangerous to riders, especially to those untrained in their use, and the perception was that they were also hazardous to pedestrians and passersby. Also, horror of horrors, women liked to ride them! (A funny modern take on this controversy can be found here; a review of a more scholarly look at the topic, here.) The bicycle brought new freedoms to women daring enough to embrace it, and many did.

Alas, I couldn’t find any photos of Montgomery County women taking their velocipedes, penny-farthings or safety-bicycles out for a spin, though perhaps there are some editorials (for or against) in the Sentinel; I’ll have to start looking. In the meantime, enjoy a few historic photos of young men and their bicycles, from our collections.

A bicycle race at the Rockville fairgrounds, circa 1915.  Photo by Lewis Reed; glass negatives donated by the Reed and Gartner families.

Students and faculty of the Andrew Small Academy, Darnestown, circa 1895; the older boys at each end are holding their bicycles.  Donated by Patricia Griffith Biondi.

My favorite: A group of youths pose with their bicycles – and, oddly enough, some miscellaneous produce – probably at the Rockville fairgrounds, circa 1895.  Left to right: Stephen Lyddane, Worthington Talbott, Steve Quigley, Lee Dorsey, Leonard Nicholson, John Brewer Jr., Henry Dawson.

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