Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Bicycling was popular in 1890's New Orleans

      In the late 19th century bicycling was a huge recreational activity in the U.S. attracting hundreds of thousands of the middle and upper class to buy bicycles and learn to ride them.  And New Orleans was very much a part of the fad, says Dale A. Somers in his 1972 book, "Sports in New Orleans 1850-1900," published by Louisiana State University Press and available in area libraries.
     Velocipedes (the rider straddled a bar between two wheels and provided motive power by pushing of the ground with his feet) were being raced on shell roads on the city's outskirts as early as 1869.  Ordinaries, bicycles with tall front wheels, hence the name "highwheelers" arrived in the Crescent City around 1880 spawning the birth of the New Orleans Bicycle Club in 1880.  The club, composed mostly of "men of affairs of fairly high standing," built a spacious club house with a bowling alley on the corner of Prytania and Valance in 1889.
     But as in the rest of the nation, the appeal of riding highwheelers was limited to young, and wealthy (ordinaries could cost as much as $200) men who found the dangers of riding the big wheel fast part of cycling's appeal.
     Bicycle racing was the focus of the sport in New Orleans even with the introduction of the safety bicycle (rear wheel driven by a chain, wheels same size) in the 1880's. Riders with national standings raced in the Crescent City, sometimes drawing thousands of spectators.  A cement track was built at the intersection of Carrollton and Tulane.
     However bruising fights with the League of American Wheelmen, bicycle racings' sanctioning body at the time, over who was or was not a professional, racial segregation and Sunday bicycling, deflated interest in the sport in the city.   Somers reports that by 1892 cyclists had eschewed the racing scene and were (GASP!) using their "steel steeds" almost exclusively for necessary transportation, "contented to pedal to and from their places of business."
     Bicycling rebounded to a new peak of interest in the city around 1895 when news reports claimed the dozen or so bicycle dealers in New Orleans were selling as many as 5,000 bicycles in a three-month period.  The revival surpassed anything the city had witnessed before with some cycle clubs fielding 700 members.  The majority of the riders participated in "pleasure riding" defined as Sunday bicycle excursions to  Bay St. Louis, MS, Abita Springs, LA and Baton Rouge, LA and in the after-ride dances.
      Then, as now, not everyone was thrilled with bicyclists on the roadways.    There were instances of physical attacks of cyclists and times dogs were set upon riders in rural areas.  "Road hogs," carriage drivers who would not allow packs of riders to pass on narrow shell roads were a constant aggravation for cyclists of the day.
     In 1890  the state legislature recognized cyclist's right to the road conferring "the same rights on the public highways of this state as are prescribed by law in the cases of persons using carriages drawn by horses," but this did little to make riders welcome on public roads.  About this time laws were passed in New Orleans requiring cyclists to keep at least one hand on the handlebars at all times, stay to the right and use lanterns when riding at night.
     Cycling was a boon to the status of women who soon viewed the sport as "the symbol of emancipated womanhood."  Cycling was the catalyst for significant changes in what was socially allowable in dress and behavior for women in the 1890's.  Split skirts and "bloomers" became accepted female attire.  One New Orleans female offered this advice to be accepted socially when cycling; "...never, never chew gum, conduct yourself altogether in a ladylike manner and sensible people will not shake their heads in disapproval when you ride."
    Good advice in any age.