Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Some Thoughts on Scorching

The New York Times a couple of weekends ago had a piece on a show at the Smithsonian on bike history.
The bike has an interesting place in the history of industrial production and consumer capitalism, in addition to being interesting as pure technology.

It also figures in our culture and the ways we symbolize anxiety about change.

One of the items referenced in the Times piece was this sheet music, dedicated to the League of American Wheelmen.
 
"The Scorcher" sheet music
by George Rosey, via Johns Hopkins Library
The piece doesn't discuss the sheet music directly, but it's another fascinating cultural text.

I read it, I think, very differently than it was intended.

I read it as a woman on bike fleeing a "scorcher," a man speeding and reckless on his bike - and very possibly a predatory or otherwise threatening man, one whose company she does not necessarily relish. Even though the composer is George Rosey, the type and design on the cover suggests the woman might be named Rosey and the man her scorcher.

It is possible the woman herself is scorching, and it is possible she is flirting with the man, playing coy and fleeing rather than fearfully fleeing. It may not be possible to say for sure.

But even though it is only a little more than a century old, it still is a text and set of images very difficult to read today.

A similar image is in a national tobacco ad. Here it seems unquestionable that the Scorcher is a woman speeding and riding recklessly. (It could also point to the origin of the epithet "battle axe" for an uptight or powerful woman - maybe there's a Temperance subtext, too.)

July 21st, 1896
There's clearly a sense in which "uppity" women riding under their own power need to be belittled and put in their place. The potentially independent woman was a threat to the patriarchy!

(Maybe you have other readings of the imagery? I don't think there's one single reading that is right and complete by itself.)

The thing is, there weren't actually that many women riding bikes around 1900, and those that were came from fairly well-to-do families. We might recall that Myra Albert's father was a banker and trustee at Willamette.

Myrtle Card and Ernestine Levy in Salem, circa 1900*
(Detail, Oregon State Library)
Here's a very rare image of lady Salemites on bike. Ernestine Levy's parents moved to San Francisco and she herself moved to New York City with her husband. This is not working class transportation here. (There may be more to say in the future about Levy and Card!)

I don't know if Levy and Card were involved in suffrage advocacy, but one who was, Esther Pohl Lovejoy, used a bike in the 1890s, but transitioned to a car in 1906. The successful suffrage campaign of 1912 used the "Suffrage Truck," not suffrage bikes, as the center of publicity.

Portland Suffrage Advocates, 1912
The image of an independent woman on bike was a powerful symbol, attracting both positive and negative charges, but it is likely we overstate how pervasive were actual women on wheels and how great was the bike's force for liberation.

It was overwhelmingly men doing the riding.

And the scorcher was almost always a man or boy, not a woman or girl, engaging in bad behavior. (It's hard not be reductive about that testosterone thing!)

Scorcher, November 2nd, 1898

Scorcher, May 3rd, 1903
"Scorching" describes a real form of inconsiderate behavior, but again the papers overstated how common it was. The scorcher was a symbol of change, an Other, and attracted fear of the unknown. (The structure is perennial: Now it is the car driver who generally expects the person on foot or person on bike to get out of the way, and the car driver who causes the injury in a crash.)

I think the place where I encounter scorching most often is at Minto and Riverfront parks. When I am walking on a shared use path and a person on bike whizzes by too fast - that to me is a minor instance of scorching. Same for "Cat 6 Commuters," those who treat ordinary bike and foot traffic as obstacles or competitors in their race to work. It's a combination of carelessness and speed that can makes for scorching. It seems like a word ripe for a revival!

There has been at least one attempt to recover the word in the 1992 short documentary, Return of the Scorcher, but I think they misunderstand scorching:
In the 1890's, before automobiles ruled the roads, bicyclists were referred to as "Scorchers" because of their blazing speed. A century later, in a world filled with car-related environmental and social problems, Return of the Scorcher discovers an inspired and evolving bicycling renaissance.
The problem with scorching wasn't the speed, it was inconsiderateness for slower users of the roadway or sidewalk.

Scorching doesn't describe all the forms of behavior against norms. Bike salmon, those who bike the wrong-way against traffic in a bike lane, and the cautious running of red lights and stop signs - these minor infractions aren't instances of scorching, and we have other ways to talk about them, not all of which need involve opprobrium. Many engaged in salmoning do so because the roadways and bike lanes don't seem safe or comfortable to them, not because they derive pleasure from flouting the law or otherwise being a jerk. Car drivers routinely roll stop signs, and it seems like there are a lot of instances where a careful "yield" is as good or better than a stop.

Some of course talk too much about the misbehavior of people on bike. Just as the woman on bike could be a symbol of arrogance and trouble in 1900, so to some today just about any person on bike is a threat to the social order in the 21st century.

The arrogance!
But we know better.

Update

Apparently it was in the air. BikePortland also has notes on scorching.

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