As the UCI World Bike Championships unfold and professional road bikers from all over the map pedal by LVA down Richmond’s Broad Street, the Virginia Newspaper Project thought it a pertinent time to explore the search term “bicycle” in the Library’s free, online digital newspaper resource, Virginia Chronicle.
With nearly 500,000 newspaper pages, and more being added all the time, Virginia Chronicle is a fantastic tool for historical research. Among its features is an easy to use keyword search box, which we used for our “bicycle” search. “Cycling,” “wheeling” and “wheelmen” are a few alternate search terms for locating bike related articles.
While there is an advanced search feature on Virginia Chronicle, we did a simple search of the word “bicycle” which brought up an impressive 23,355 results. Each article in which bicycle was found is listed with title, date and page information. To the left of the results list, there is another column which breaks down search results by the different publications and decades in which our search term was found.
Interestingly, the first and only result for “bicycle” during the decade of 1860-1869 came from the Staunton Spectator of May 11, 1869. Bikes were novel at that time and the article, which claims that the “citizens of Staunton had their curiosity in reference to bicycles gratified,” is very brief.
The search results get higher with each succeeding decade, with the highest result number, 11,615 to be exact, appearing during the decade of 1890 to 1899. This decade saw the rise of the “Safety” bicycle, a bike with front and back wheels of equal size and a chain drive that transferred power from the pedals to the real wheel, making riding easier and opening up the sport to men and women of all ages.
By the 1890s, biking, or “wheeling” as it was also called, was an unusual sport in that it was hugely popular among and accessible to both men and women. For women fans of the sport, cycling was one realm in which they had equal footing with men and it offered them a newfound freedom of movement. In fact, in 1896, Susan B. Anthony told the New York World’s Nellie Bly that cycling had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”
Cycling also affected the trendy Victorian fashions for women–suits designed for cycling, which were less constrictive than typical Victorian wear, became popular and were often discussed in the fashion sections of newspapers. I don’t want to veer too far from our “bicycle” search, but an alternate search of “wheeling” turned this up from the June 10, 1900 issue of the Richmond Dispatch:
After 1899, the results for “bicycle” gradually go down in Virginia Chronicle. From 1900-1909, the results drop to 5,558–the results continue to go down from those years on. Virginia Chronicle does have fewer pages in copyright (post 1923), so that partially explains the drop in numbers for later years. Here is just a small sampling of what was found among the 23,355 results: