Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A Bicycle Comes to Maizeland

Two servants in the Maizeland household support baby Kay
Timpson on a bicycle, while grandfather John Henry
Livingston looks on.  c. 1903
I was doing some research for a project on the importance of bicycles to turn-of-the-century American women, when I came across these pictures in the recently-donated Katharine Livingston Timpson collection.

They're fabulous pictures for all kinds of reasons--from John Henry's affectionate gaze at his granddaughter Kay, to the personal and rare portraits of two household servants.  But the reason these photos caught my eye this time is of course the bicycle.

New York Journal, 1896, from the Library of Congress
Not long after the introduction of the safety bicycle and then the drop-frame bicycle marketed towards women in the late 1880s, America was seized with a cycling craze.  With increased popularity and increased production, bicycles became pretty affordable by the 1890s, putting them within reach of the middle and even some of the working class.  The lyrics to the popular song "Daisy Bell" put a point on this by crooning,

   It won't be a stylish marriage
  I can't afford a carriage
  But you'll look sweet
 Upon the seat
 Of a bicycle built for two.

Just as Daylight Was Breaking,
from the Library of Congress
As with so much else, there was an element of romance to the bicycle.  Unmarried ladies and men were able to able to ride together without a chaperone, and the idea of the "New Woman" daintily speeding by on a bicycle took on a bit of a titillating note.  The 1896 song "Julienne!"

  Oh have you seen a pretty girl so neat 
  With golden hair and little dainty feet
  Upon her wheel go riding down the street
  A perfect little belle in every way
  She is the girl who sets their hearts on fire
  A trifle pert; a rogish flirt
  And there's not a chap in town that doesn't             say

  Oh Julienne, oh Julienne I her so
  I talk and think and sing of her wherever I go
  She's just the face and figure to attract all              men
  I've never loved a girl as I love Julienne

Men and women both readily took to "the silent steed," forming a bazillion bicycling clubs, competing in races, and just generally being out and seen on a bicycle.  Club-sponsored rides or "runs" challenged participants to do a hundred miles in a single day, called a "century."  Less formally, men and women turned out by the hundreds in good weather to take advantage of the best roads and get a little fresh air.  In fact, the League of American Wheelmen and other bicycling clubs were big advocates for paving American roads, years before the automobile cruised them.

from Clermont's collections
Bicycling even had an impact on fashion, finally giving common women the incentive to try out some of the recommendations that dress reformers had been pushing for over forty years.  In order to make bicycling more comfortable and safer, women made themselves bicycling outfits, hemming their skirts a few inches above the ankles and reducing the number of petticoats to the bare minimum.  Some more serious women--like round-the-world cyclist Annie "Londonderry"Kopchovsky--even made bloomers for bicycling, though the garment was highly controversial and often the subject of ridicule.

Shirk bicycle ad, 1890s
from the Library of Congress
As bicycling became ubiquitous in America, it became a little bit of a victim of it's own success.  At the end of the 1890s, bicycle club membership was slipping.  Pretty soon their novelty was eclipses by the automobile, and bicycles lapsed into the background as an overlooked part of daily life.

So what does all this have to do with that one bicycle that appeared at Maizeland one summer afternoon in 1903?

As usual when presented with a nifty picture and little context: I don't exactly know.  Still, linking the household to this wider movement does give us some interesting context on the Livingstons.  Here they are participating in this national craze--albeit a little late.

Theo Timpson as a toddler, surrounded by
others with unknown identities. c. 1903
Who's is this bike?  The frame shows it to be a man's bicycle, possibly a tall man's.  Could it be that John Henry, who has stripped down to his shirt sleeves in the first photo, rode this bicycle a few miles down the road from Clermont to show it to his daughter in Red Hook?  Maybe.  Or maybe it belongs to the taller of the two boys in the picture at right (with Theo perched atop the seat).  He is wearing knickers, which could be either for bicycling or merely a symbol of his youth.

Nevertheless, it does point out the ubiquity of the bicycle and the kind of novel excitement it still conjured when one was brought to the house.  Now if only we knew just which Livingston man was cruising the roads of Dutchess County on his wheel...

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