Artifact Spotlight: The Bicycle Craze in America

Museum staff has had bicycles on the brain, as we gear up for the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund’s annual Ride & Run to Remember, on October 12-13, in Washington, DC. Sifting through the collection, the question of when cycling gained popularity got our wheels turning.

In the early 1890s, people were caught up in a new trend—bicycle riding. Although the bicycle had been around for a while, innovative designs, better roads, and the discovery of new materials produced a machine that was lighter, smoother, and faster to ride. Growing public acceptance of this social and health-boosting activity encouraged people to try it. Even fashion was influenced, as new skirts were designed for women to ride modestly in public.

Print from an 1893 edition of Judge Magazine.
Collection of the National Law Enforcement Museum,

As with any new trend, this two-wheeled contraption faced its share of critics. An 1893 edition of Judge Magazine spoofed the craze, creating cartoon vignettes of all the silly developments that could come from it. One such scene (see left) pictures two portly policemen trying to balance on the spindly wheels of turn-of-the-century bicycles, with a caption that reads, “it would not do.”

Ignoring the ridicule, the NYPD forged ahead with a Bicycle Squad, and with great success. After its 29 officers made over 1300 arrests in their first year, the Squad was soon expanded to 100 officers. Before long, these squads became the norm within urban law enforcement agencies, which surely left the critics backpedaling on their anti-bicycle stance.

This month, 120 years after this cartoon was published, riders will cycle up to 50 miles to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, to honor the sacrifice and celebrate the service of our law enforcement officers. Fundraising events like this one help keep the long tradition of cycling in America alive—and support a worthy cause, too.