David Herlihy — the author of The Lost Cyclist and Bicycle: The History — recently gave a terrific presentation on the portrayal of cycling in Puck, an important turn of the 20th century humor magazine. The event was hosted by REI Soho in the sub basement of the historic building where Puck was edited and printed. Throughout, he weaved details from the history of cycling, including stories of the influence of Frank Lenz on the American popular imagination regarding the possibilities and promise of bicycle travel. Herlihy’s warm style and thoughtful responses to questions kept the audience engaged, and the images were amusing and informative.
What came through clearly is just how remarkable a cultural moment the advent of the bicycle was. The very idea of self powered mobility that was accessible regardless, to a degree, of class, gender, or race was transformative. The safety bicycle was not merely practical but also provocative and symbolic. The fact that bicycles figure so prominently in social commentary cartoons shows that this wasn’t latent or happening below awareness. Readers could readily make sense of the deep changes being portrayed by cartoons of women leaving their children with their husbands to ride around the countryside in knickers, or of a Rockefeller riding alongside a worker, or of a pastor’s flock riding past the church on a Sunday morning. Obviously, the bicycle was not the sole or even main cause of these changes, but bicycles played enough of a role to be a ready metaphor for them. Moreover, pressure to develop the bicycle played a significant role in accelerating manufacturing techniques and expertise to a level where motorcycles, automobiles, and airplanes were conceivable.