Introduction
Early Bicycles
Bicycle Touring
Cycling in Fiction
Women Awheel
Cycling Music
 
Credits

 

Introduction

America's long love affair with the automobile has overshadowed its earlier infatuation with the bicycle. Although human-propelled, wheeled devices have been around since at least as early as the late eighteenth century, the earliest bicycles were generally regarded as toys for fools and the idle rich. Furthermore, their popularity was limited by the simple fact that they were hard to ride. The lack of gears, chains and even pedals meant that early cyclists had to push themselves forward with their feet, and the solid wooden wheels on the bicycles of this period gave them the nickname "boneshakers". By the 1880s, however, all of this had changed. The old British "ordinaries" (bicycles with front wheels almost as tall as a man and pedals attached directly to the axle) had taken on the form that we now recognize as the modern bicycle. Called the "safety" bicycle at the end of the nineteenth century, this design transformed what had once been dangerous contraptions popular only with sportsmen and daredevils into a practical and pleasureable means of transportation for average men and women of all ages and social classes. Bicycle factories sprang up everywhere and the cycling industry became an important part of the American and European economies.
The bicycle had a profound cultural impact at the turn of the twentieth century. Traces of the golden age of cycling can be found today in the colorful body of printed literature that has survived from the period. Cyclists began traveling long distances in the 1870s, "wheeling" across whole continents and even around the world; many of them left entertaining accounts of their experiences on the road. The bicycle became such an integral part of life in America and Europe that it started to show up in fiction, almost always in a comic role. Countless songs and poems appeared, some making fun of the cycling craze, others spurring it on. Women became as passionate about cycling as men, recognizing that the bicycle was a liberating force that would help them on their journey down the road to equal rights. Many women's accounts of their experiences with the bicycle still make for inspirational reading over a hundred years later.
Columbia Bicycles Catalog (1917) Columbia Bicycles Catalog (1917)
The Lilly Library at Indiana University houses a large collection of books, trade catalogs, periodical literature, photographs, sheet music, manuscripts and ephemera related to the early history of cycling. The collection could hardly have found a better home. Although Indiana is associated with automobile racing today, Indianapolis was once home to a large number of bicycle manufacturers. Cyclists wheeling their way across the country or, in a few cases, around the world in the late nineteenth century invariably passed through Indiana on their way to or from Chicago, a city which had become almost legendary among cyclists for its excellent paved streets and attractive parks. Visiting cyclists usually had good things to say about the Hoosier State and never failed to appreciate its flatness. In 1898, the League of American Wheelmen held their annual meet in Indianapolis, and for a whole week the city was given over to cyclists. Indianapolis was also home for a time to one of the most famous bicycle racers of all time, Marshall "Major" Taylor, and in 1982 the city honored Taylor by naming a new velodrome after him. Since 1951, Bloomington and Indiana University have hosted the annual Little 500 bicycle race. Modeled on the Indianapolis 500 and described as the "World's Greatest College Weekend," the race was the inspiration for the 1979 film Breaking Away.

A sample of the library's holdings is presented here. Researchers interested in finding out more about the collection should contact the Public Services Department.