Photographing Early 20th Century Bike Life

There’s truly not a more fascinating way to explore history than through the photograph – for me anyway. Something about the haunting richness of images from the late 19th & early 20th century draws me in, irresistibly. No filmmaker seemingly can pull off the complex period realism of the documentary image, save for maybe Jack Fisk or David Crank. And nobody has compiled a more extensive online collection of these images than Shorpy.com.

From self-portraits, to promotional images, to street photography, these works reveal how common bicycles once were for many classes of people. This is something I’ve always felt strongly about the bike – that it wields to power to enable marginalized communities in ways we’re only just becoming aware of. Knowing this doesn’t hide the signs of racial or gender divides also revealed in the photos selected below, yet it’s encouraging to find such cycling diversity anyway.

It’s also worth noting the total lack of hand-breaks or helmets being employed. Ah, such simpler times we used to live in.

I’ll keep the text short and let the photos speak a thousand words on their own. Enjoy the images below in astonishingly high resolution by clicking the images themselves. Historical information about the subjects can be found by clicking the link below each. Pay close attention to the details. See if you can spot the bike with Swastikas on its tires.

Check out previous archival photo posts: ‘Night Terrors of the Industrial Revolution‘ as well as ‘Examining Street Life Before the Automobile‘.

SHORPY_FL16733413Auckland, New Zealand: 1902

04884u1Washington, D.C.: 1890

SHORPY_12828uNew York City: 1913

SHORPY_01532uNew York City: 1908

28573uWashington, D.C.: 1919

03910uWaco, Texas: 1913

29118uWashington, D.C.: 1920

FSA/8a15000/8a156008a15612a.tifChicago: 1941

FSA/8a15000/8a153008a15351a.tifProvincetown, Massachusetts: 1937

03736u_0_0Norfolk, Virginia: 1911

11315a1Washington, D.C.: 1918

03464uWashington, D.C.: 1921

FSA/8a23000/8a237008a23727a.tifAbbeville, Louisiana: 1936

SHORPY_28800uWashington, D.C.: 1920

SHORPY_FL16642751Christchurch, New Zealand: 1910

14014uLaurel, Maryland: 1925

02857uWashington, D.C.: 1920

4a26689aDetroit, Michigan: 1912

4a10865aVolusia County, Florida: 1903

04506uWashington, D.C.: 1921

1954bike_parade2Lafayette, Indiana: 1954

SHORPY_12973uWashington, D.C.: 1925

•••

I began to feel that myself plus the bicycle equaled myself plus the world, upon whose spinning-wheel we must all learn to ride, or fall into the sluiceways of oblivion and despair. We saw that the physical development of humanity’s mother-half would be wonderfully advanced by that universal introduction of the bicycle. We saw with satisfaction, the great advantage in good fellowship and mutual understanding between men and women who take the road together, sharing its hardships and rejoicing in the poetry of motion.
Frances Elizabeth Willard, 1895 – from ‘A Wheel Within A Wheel