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Bicycles—Vintage & Antique Advertising & Posters

When looking at historical bicycle advertisements, not only are we seeing the development of the modern-day bike from velocipede to the safety, but we are also seeing the progression of feminism, as women recognize their freedom and find the bicycle to embody their independence. Although a seemingly strange medium, this transformation of the modern-day woman is discernible through the history of bicycle advertisements.

The oldest form of bicycle was the velocipede, or draisine, a contraption invented in 1817 by Baron Karl von Drais. It was made almost completely out of wood, weighed 48 pounds, and was foot propelled. Although rare, we sometimes carry velocipede advertisements, but, due to their scarcity, they are often snatched up almost immediately. By the 1860s, pedals had been attached to the front wheel of the velocipede, and was, in the vernacular, known as “the boneshaker” -- an obvious implication to the user’s experience on the rigid framed bicycles on the cobblestone streets of the day.

Next came the high-wheel bicycles, or the penny-farthings, of the 1870s. They featured a tall front wheel, the “penny”, and a small rear wheel, the “farthing”. These high speed bicycles were extremely dangerous. Often, riders would break both wrists while trying to break their fall (their legs often got trapped beneath the handlebars), so riding was reserved for bold young men and the well-to-do as an example of social status. 

Then, in the 1880s and 1890s came the Safety Bicycle, invented by John Kemp Starley. The Safety Bicycle changed everything. As the name suggests, the bicycle was much more reliable and secure, and became a mode of transportation for not only the wealthy, but for the common people. And so begun the bicycle craze. In 1897 alone, over 2 million bikes were sold in the United States. Women began to challenge Victorian ideals, and since the restrictive dress of the corset and hoop skirt was inhibiting on a bicycle, the New Woman opted for more freeing and loose clothing. This New Woman can often be seen in the advertisements of the day, and represent the changing norms of society.

Susan B. Anthony said on the subject, “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”