The neighborhood heathens

I don’t have to guess what some preachers in the 1890s would have made of our neighborhood bicycling group riding on Sunday mornings.
History tells us that we’d be castigated as a band of heathens, out on our “diabolical devices of the demon of darkness” while righteous, God-fearing people are sitting in pews rather than on bicycle saddles — or worse, on a barstool for a post-ride beer.
I was prompted to make this excursion into bicycling history by a random Internet search for cycling images. It turned up one from the July 21, 1897, edition of Puck magazine, which envisioned what hell would be like for bicyclists who don’t attend church on Sunday morning.

A vision of a bicyclists' hell from the July 21, 1897, edition of Puck magazine, contemplating the fate of nonobservant bicyclists who spent their Sunday mornings in the saddle rather than a pew

The decade of the 1890s was considered the golden age of bicycling in America, a time during which the New York Tribune trumpeted in 1895, perhaps with a shade of hyperbole: “The discovery and progressive improvement of the bicycle is of more importance to mankind than all the victories and defeats of Napoleon, with the First and Second Punic Wars … thrown in.” Wow!
The U.S. Census Bureau offered a more sober assessment of the previous decade in its report on the 1900 census: “Few articles ever used by man have ever created so great a revolution in social conditions.”
But that revolution, which included such changes as easier social interaction between the sexes and more streamlined items of female attire, such as shorter, more form-fitting skirts, didn’t sit well with some who saw themselves as guardians of public morality.
According to a 1995 book, Merry Wheels and Spokes of Steel: A Social History of the Bicycle by Robert A. Smith, an unidentified Baltimore preacher railed in 1896:
“These bladder-wheeled bicycles are diabolical devices of the demon of darkness. They are contrivances to trap the feet of the unwary and skin the nose of the innocent. They are full of guile and deceit. When you think you have broken one to ride, and subdued its wild and Satanic nature, behold, it bucketh you off in the road and teareth a great hole in your pants. Look not on the bike when it bloweth upon its wheels, for at last it bucketh like a bronco and hurteth like thunder. Who has skinned legs? Who has a bloody nose? Who has ripped breeches? They that dally along with the bicycle.”
I myself have suffered skinned knees, “ripped breeches” and a fractured collar bone while dallying with a bicycle. Maybe I should have attributed those pratfalls to Satan rather than to a defective inner tube, debris on the road or just plain carelessness.

Man with a penny farthing

The 19th-century obsession with the bicycle actually began in the 1870s with the “ordinary” bicycle, sometimes called the “high wheel” or the “penny farthing” because it had a big front wheel like the English penny and a small rear wheel like a farthing. But the bicycle craze really took off in the 1880s with the introduction of the “safety” bicycle, one with two wheels of equal size and pneumatic tires.
“Millions of riders rode around the nation’s cities, wore bicycle clothes purchased at bicycle shops, read bicycle publications, attended bicycle training academies, watched bicycle races, formed bicycle clubs, rode in urban velodromes, and agitated for legislation to promote bicycling,” says a page on highway history on the website of the Federal Highway Administration.
“When a craze of any kind really catches on in this republic, restraint does not characterize its reception,” wrote Fred C. Kelly in “The Great Bicycle Craze,” an article published in the December 1956 edition of American Heritage magazine.
The “craze attracted attention in churches, too, where it drew mixed reviews,” Ron Spreng wrote in the journal Minnesota History in the summer 1995 issue. Some preachers censured bicycles as tools of Satan and threatened to excommunicate cyclists, Spreng wrote in an article on the history of the bicycling craze in Minnesota’s Red River Valley. But other men of the cloth “proclaimed the sport a symbol of human progress to be used to carry the gospel to the lost.”
“Some pastors were forced out of their pulpits for riding,” Spreng wrote, “but in the Red River Valley at least two ministers took to the road, the Rev. Longfellow wheeling to Grand Forks ‘by the bike route’ after delivering ‘a lecture at the Detroit Lakes summer assembly’ and the Rev. A.T. Foster completing a 100-mile ‘century’ ride from Casselton to Grand Forks.

Some preachers figured, "If you can't beat them, join them."

“The Grand Forks Herald, quick to support bicycling, endorsed a plan to encourage cyclists to attend church by providing racks, pointing out that ‘cyclers are numerous’ and ‘to a great extent young and in the fullest need of the instruction and guidance which the church offers them.’ A Baptist church threw in its lot with the cyclists when the women’s group sponsored a popular bicycle social.”
I’m relieved that times have changed somewhat since then. No one, as yet, has threatened our excommunication from polite society or ministered to us on the road. Nevertheless, perhaps we should call our neighborhood cycling group “The Heathens of Mistletoe Heights.” Now that would look cool on a jersey.


Filed under Americana, Cycling across America, History, Literary musings, Urban cycling

3 responses to “The neighborhood heathens

  1. Scott

    Count me as one of those lost Heathens. I find that Sunday morning is the best time to ride – less traffic to deal with – very peaceful, almost even…..spiritual.
    As far as being ministered to; there have been times people have tried to”excommunicate” me from my bike either with their ignorance, carelessness or malice.


  2. Chuck

    Thanks for the informative article and drawing…this was great!

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