Last week I wrote about the rapid rise of the craze for the velocipede in Regency England. Introduced first in London, early in 1819, by the enterprising coachmaker, Denis Johnson, the velocipede was all the rage by the early spring of that year. It quickly spread to other cities and towns across the country, and was particularly popular with young men of leisure.
Yet, by the end of that same year, 1819, the craze for the velocipede was over. How did this near mania for a human-powered two-wheeled vehicle fall nearly as quickly as it rose?
Unfortunately for the velocipede, though the leisure set was enamored of it, many other people across England did not take to it. Since its saddle had very little in the way of shock-absorption, the ride was most comfortable over smooth surfaces. The paths of Hyde Park and other London parks were initially popular for riding velocipedes, but there were a number of velocipedists who soon chose to travel the city streets. Finding the cobbled street surface much too uncomfortable, the more inconsiderate of these velocipedists chose to ride their vehicle on the smoother foot pavement (sidewalk). They tended to barrel along with little regard for the pedestrians who were walking there. Not all velocipede riders were always fully in control of their machine, and there were a number of collisions, most minor, but a few causing serious injury. Such behavior spread to other cities and towns, were velocipedists also took over the foot pavements as their riding surface of choice. As you might imagine, such behavior did not endear the velocipedists to the general public. Several cities and towns soon began passing laws banning velocipedes from foot pavements. Some of the more hardy velocipedists then took to the streets. But even if they were not careless, their curious vehicles frightened the horses, and some towns eventually banned velocipede riding altogether.
The craze for the velocipede was so intense that many people who were not physically fit, including Prinny himself, acquired one, as did his royal brother, the Duke of York. These riders could also be dangerous as they often did not have complete control of the vehicle when they rode it, particularly downhill, and velocipedes had no braking system. The caricaturists, such as Thomas Rowlandson, George and Isaac Cruikshank and Henry Thomas Alken had a field day. Satire aimed at velocipede riders became withering. Nearly a hundred different caricatures ridiculing the velocipede and its riders were published in just 1819 alone.
Soon the health benefits of the velocipede also came under attack. When it was first introduced, the velocipede was promoted as a healthful form of exercise. It was said to improve digestion, invigorate the corporate system by bringing all the muscles of the body into action, and to open the chest. But many careless riders either caused accidents in which pedestrians were injured, or they were injured themselves, some severely. The Royal College of Surgeons soon condemned the machine as dangerous to the rider and likely to cause "ruptures."
By the late summer of 1819, opposition was mounting against the velocipede. There were laws banning the vehicle in many cities, the medical community had condemned the machine, and the scorn and derision which was heaped upon it by the many caricatures published that year all combined to undermine the public fascination with the vehicle. By the end of 1819, the craze for the velocipede was over. Denis Johnson returned to his coachmaking business, as did his rival velocipede makers, when the velocipede market dried up.
Though the velocipede was no longer manufactured in any great numbers, there were still many of the vehicles in use throughout England after the end of 1819. They remained popular with young riders, especially on country estates inhabited by active children. A number of rural riders continued to use them as a cheap form of transportation, though they were seldom seen in cities and towns once the craze had faded. Mechanics and others interested in human-powered vehicles continued to tinker with their own versions of the velocipede and proto-types of these vehicles could be seen in use from time to time, well into the reign of Queen Victoria.
Though Georgette Heyer did not date her novels, she always included some historical fact by which a discerning reader could determine the date of the story. In the case of Frederica, the Pedestrian Curricle serves that purpose. The Pedestrian Curricle which Jessamy rode clearly sets the date for that story in 1819, since the velocipede craze rose and fell during that year. And, since his vehicle was called a Pedestrian Curricle, we can be fairly certain he acquired it from the coachmaker-turned-velocipede-maker, Denis Johnson, for that was Johnson’s own name for the machine he built and sold in London in the last year of the Regency.
Author’s Note: There Were No Bicycles During the Regency!
Neither the word nor the vehicle.
Though the vehicles in use during the Regency had two wheels, they were not bicycles, nor were they ever called such. The bicycle as we know it today was invented in France in 1868 and came to England in 1869. It was at this same time that the word "bicycle" came into the English language. However, "velocipede" was used to refer to several different bicycles during the last half of the nineteenth century.
The bicycle was a great improvement over the old velocipede, having a chain and pedal system for power, brakes, a more comfortable seat, and air-filled rubber tires. It should also be noted that this vehicle did much to liberate women, as it essentially brought to an end the power of the chaperon over young ladies. Young women were allowed to ride out without supervision on their bicycles in the company of young men, something which would never have been allowed during the decade of the Regency.
Ladies were also somewhat liberated from the very heavy garments of the day when they were riding their bicycles, in the interests of safety. They also imposed fashion on the bicycle by the later decades of the nineteenth century. There were many women who had their bicycles painted to match the garments they wore to ride them. And in the Gay Nineties, Tiffany’s in New York covered the frame of a lady’s bicycle with precious and semi-precious materials and displayed it in the window of their main showroom. It was exhibited for only one day, as it was purchased by a titled Englishman. Sadly, there is no record of the name of the purchaser or its intended recipient.
For further reading on the history of the bicycle and its predecessors:
Alderson, Frederick, Bicycling: A History. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972.
Herlihy, David V., Bicycle: The History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.
McGurn, James, On Your Bicycle: An Illustrated History of Cycling. New York: Fact on File Publications, 1987.
Palmer, Arthur Judson, Riding High: The Story of the Bicycle. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1956.