memorabilia

The Bicycle Through Sheet Music
Norman Batho Collection

The bicycle had an extraordinary impact not only on personal mobility, but in every aspect of our culture. One example of how the bicycle penetrated society can be seen in the illustrations on sheet music, which enjoyed wide and popular distribution before the advent of home and commercial recording and playback technology. By studying examples of sheet music from the mid-19th century onward, we can see the evolution of the bicycle and the impact it had on society and popular culture.

The precursor to the bicycle was a heavy, unwieldy device with no pedals. The piece of music illustrated on the left -- published in 1845 -- pictures a man pushing a hobbyhorse down a busy street.

The velocipede, a simple wooden frame with wheels that a rider straddled and pushed along with his feet, first appeared in the late 1860s. It caught the imagination of the populace, and ended up on the cover of a substantial number of pieces of sheet music in 1868 and 1869. However, the fad was short lived which is evidenced by the fact that from 1870 through 1879 virtually no bicycle related sheet music was published.

The introduction of the ordinary or high wheel bicycle at the Philadelphia Exposition in 1876 brought bicycle-related sheet music again to the fore. In the early 1880s the ordinary was popular on sheet music covers, but was replaced shortly thereafter with an ever-growing assortment of safety bicycles. 

Given the freedom to travel, cyclists organized rides of 100 miles or more. It was the popularity of the bicycle, and the demand of thousands of cyclists that led to improvement of the roads, free railway transport for bicycles, and hotels catering to the needs of the cyclist.  Few women were willing to get astride an ordinary, but with the development of the safety bicycle, many were pleased with the convenience and freedom it provided. The many-layered dress of the day made riding impossible, but bloomers provided the answer. By the 1890s, women wearing bloomers and great loose, or split, cycling skirts, had taken to the bicycle, and many pieces of bicycle-related sheet music pictured female cyclists.

The number of cycle clubs increased as bicycling became more popular. Most major population centers had at least one bicycle club, and nearly all were associated with the League of American Wheelmen (LAW), a national organization that lobbied for good roads, the rights of bicyclists, and, to a great extent, monitored bicycle racing.

During the Victorian Era, the bicycle contributed to the quality of life in many ways. It gave women the opportunity to “leave the kitchen,” and it gave everyone the freedom to travel beyond the confines of one’s hometown. With such mobility, and the popularity of the bicycle among both men and women, courting awheel became commonplace.

The bicycle also contributed many hours of entertainment through racing and stunt riding. Cycling, and its woes, became common topics at minstrel shows, at bicycle club dinners, in music halls, and variety theaters. Bicycle rags, cake walks, schottisches, gallops, waltzes, and two-steps became common in the dance halls.

Alas, the automobile put an end to it all.  Only one bicycle song has survived the test of time. This is “Daisy Bell,” also known as “A Bicycle Built for Two.” Composed by Harry Dacre in 1892, it failed to gain popularity in the United States, but became an immediate hit in England. Shortly thereafter, it was being sung on the Continent, as far away as Australia, and eventually in the United States. Sequels were composed by Dacre and by other composers. One by Dacre, was entitled “Rolling, Bowling, Along” and also known as “A Bicycle Built for One.” Neither has lasted.  In the past 110 years, “Daisy Bell,” Dacre’s greatest hit, has been published in over 50 different single-sheet editions and has been included in compilations too numerous to count.

Dottie Batho, the owner of the sheet music pictured on the following pages, welcomes comments and questions.  Contact Dottie Batho.
 

Click on a category to display more bicycle sheet music covers.

 
Bicycle Clubs Comic Miscellaneous Safety Bicycles
Bicycle Racing Daisy Bell Patriotic Velocipede
Bloomers Highwheel Bicycles Ragtime Women
Children League Of American Wheelmen Romance

 


Chronological Index to Bicycle Sheet Music Covers
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