Got a bike? You can ride it if you like! Part 3

In anticipation of this Saturday’s Tweed Ride Toronto, this is the final installment in a series of three posts looking at aspects of cycling in late-1800s Toronto.  Part One is here and Part Two is here.

Advertisement from the April 1887 issue of The Canadian Wheelman. Note the non-vibrating, hygenic saddle, "bifurcated to remove pressure from the perinaeum."

In his 2001 book The Ride to Modernity: The Bicycle in Canada, 1869-1900 (University of Toronto Press, Toronto: 2001), Glen Norcliffe says there were eight cycling clubs in Toronto in April of 1892, with between five and six hundred registered members between them.  At the time these clubs were predominantly the domain of young, middle-class men.  Norcliffe notes that the increasing popoularity of the “safety bicycle” in the 1890s, the style of bicycle most popular today, saw a considerable increase in the number of women who were drawn to cycling, although most “wheelmen” at this time were men.

While there are documented examples of using bicycles for commuting in Toronto in the 1880s, such uses were generally in the minority during the bicycle’s nineteenth century heyday, not really emerging until the late 1890s, when the price of bicycles dropped low enough to make them more available to the working class.  Commuting by bicycle also became more practical as improvements in the condition of Toronto’s roads (i.e. paving) made urban cycling safer; amongst the various dirt road hazards mentioned by Norcliffe are sizeable stones, soft sand or muddy road conditions, ruts left behind by wagons, and the presence of horses.

By the mid-1890s, the growth of urban riding prompted curious developments in the city.  An article in an April, 1894 edition of The Evening Star reported on a deputation on behalf of Toronto’s bicycling community by enthusiastic Toronto cyclist Dr. Perry Doolittle, who registered his objections to a proposed cycling by-law which would restrict speeds to eight miles an hour and evidently require Toronto cyclists to carry lamps while riding.  A few years later, newspapers reveal the introduction of Toronto by-laws requiring cyclists to stick to the far right side of the street and to stay off the sidewalks.

Masthead of The Canadian Wheelman.

The 1880s and 1890s had been a time of great innovation in cycling, with improved models and new bicycling accessories being introduced each year, but by the early twentieth century the rate of innovation slowed.  The middle-class cycling fad waned as the novelty slowly wore off.  Much of the interest in novel and innovative technology shifted to automobiles; noted Toronto historian Mike Filey claims that Dr. Perry Doolittle himself was the first person in Canada to purchase a used car, bearing license #3.  Bicycles were no longer just the exclusive domain of the middle-class.  Attitudes towards cycling became less oriented towards leisurely social activities, and more geared towards practical transportation. 

For further reading

William Humber’s Freewheeling: The Story of the Bicycling in Canada and Glen Norcliffe’s The Ride to Modernity: The Bicycle in Canada, 1869-1900 both offer excellent accounts of Canada’s bicycle history.  Humber’s book covers Canada’s cycling history from the beginning up until the book’s publication in the 1980s, whereas Norcliffe exclusively looks at the nineteenth century.  The nineteenth-century bicycle craze is also one of many interesting subjects explored in Christopher Armstrong & H.V. Nelles’ The Revenge of the Methodist Bicycle Company.  All three of these books are readily available through the Toronto Public Library.

Readers may also be interested in Jeffrey S. Murray’s article from September 2006 in Legion Magazine, and a recent piece by Simon Wallace for the Toronto Standard which focuses more on cycling in 1890s Toronto.

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