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
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
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.