Thursday, December 11, 2014

Sabbatical Project: History of Cycling in Illinois

It is often forgotten that from 1890 until about 1930 bicycling reigned as one of the most popular sports in America, rivaled only by baseball. Bicycle racers were well-paid celebrities and races routinely attracted thousands of spectators. The social elite were members of cycling clubs with private clubhouses.  The bicycle lobby was a powerful political movement that helped to establish the highway system in the US and elected many officials to state and federal offices. Bicycle manufacturing was a booming industry that led directly to the development of the automobile. The bicycle gave women a greater measure of independence and contributed to important advances in women's right. A few great early bicycle racers were African Americans who advanced racial equality through sport.

Illinois was at the center of all of this. Around 1900 Illinois was home to two-thirds of all the bicycle manufacturers in the country. The national racing circuit included stops in Chicago, Peoria and Springfield. The Memorial Day weekend Pullman races in Chicago were reported to have attracted 100,000 spectators (today's Soldier Field only holds 60,000 at capacity). Bicycles and bicycle races were a major attraction at the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair.

Most of this history is buried and forgotten. No histories of cycling in Illinois exist, despite its national prominence. The recent resurgence of cycling as a form of urban transportation and recreation has driven interest in the history of cycling.  Illinois Wesleyan University has recently approved my sabbatical proposal to write a scholarly history of cycling in Illinois.  I will undertake the initial phase of this work in the summer and fall of 2015.  I hope to have a publishable manuscript completed by summer 2016.  I am super-excited to begin work on this project as it is a great combination of various parts of my academic and professional background.  My undergraduate majors were in history and English and I will be resurrecting those skills and methods for the backbone of this project. My training and experience as a librarian and archivist will be critical for uncovering this lost history in museums, archives, old newspapers, and public domain digitized collections. These skills along with my technical knowledge of bicycles and bicycle racing make me uniquely suited to tackle this project. I also plan to start a separate blog/website to share interesting bits of information as I come across them and generate interest in the eventual book.  In that vein, check out some of the pictures below to see the kinds of things I have already found!

Central IL Brothers Frank and Charles Duryea built what most consider to be the first production automobile in the U.S. The got their start building bicycles before applying that knowledge to automobiles. This Duryea car is on display at the new Peoria Riverfront Museum.

Schwinn was the most successful and longest-lived of all the early Illinois bicycle manufacturers.

The Peoria Bicycle Club pictured here at their club house was some 400 strong around 1900.

Marshall "Major" Taylor was the first African American to win a World Championship against white competitors. Taylor had a very successful racing career that had its early beginnings on tracks in Chicago, Peoria and Springfield.

This photo of an early bicycle race in the Chicago suburbs gives a sense of just how popular the sport was at the time.

Closer to home (for me) is a picture of the Bloomington Bicycle Club in the 1890s with their highwheel "ordinaries".
Shown here is Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison on his bicycle built for ten! Carter was a favorite of the powerful bicycle lobby. Many of his campaign materials contained the slogan: "Not the champion cyclist, but the cyclists champion."

1 comment:

rochelle said...

Hi, I am also a librarian and interested in the history of McLean County. I was snatching a photo for a piece about litigation over a bicycle in 1915 and saw your blog. Mine is 100 Years Ago Today in McLean County.

Have fun with the blogging!