|NY Times, 1924 (via columbiariverhighway)|
Besides being picturesque, it's important transportation and tourism history, and it is so very nice that it is being restored for lots of walking and biking pleasure.
So how important is it that we remember history accurately and don't also enhance it with the soft-focus glow of more general nostalgia?
Yeah, it's not that important. It's a little pedantic to insist on the details.
At the same time, to the extent today that tropes, stereotypes, and myths like the "scofflaw" or "lawless cyclist" or "bikes don't pay their way" infect modern debates on transportation, similarly older tropes color the way we talk about bicycling and transportation. In many ways we talk about bikes as symbols and as lifestyle emblems, as instances of signalling or of projection, and not about bikes as neutral technology that is used in particular ways at particular times. If we want a contemporary debate that is straight-forward and factual, our readings of history should strive for a better factual underpinning as well.
At the centennial and ODOT staffer showed up with a replica of an 1893 bike model. That was pretty cool to see. Another person showed up with a penny farthing. That got lots of attention.
|"Sam Hill" - 100th birthday of|
Historic Columbia River Highway
But in 1916 a penny farthing had been already old-fashioned for a quarter century. That's a pretty anachronistic image then.
In computer terms, that's like a Macintosh computer from the 1980s!
A few days ago the Historic Landmarks Commission posted a note about one of the many sidewalk ordinances that governed bicycling on the sidewalks of Salem. They used a staged photo from 1887 or 1888 to illustrate a note about a law from 1895. (More on the photo here!)
|Historic Landmarks Commission on|
a sidewalk ordinance and Ben Taylor
|Ad for Victor Bikes, throughout June 1895|
For a show on valley women's history a few years back, Mission Mill used a penny farthing.
|At Mission Mill in 2012|
"Willamette Women: Our History is our Strength"
|Myrtle Card and Ernestine Levy in Salem, circa 1900|
(Detail, Oregon State Library)
|This is photoshopped, not real|
But it seems like the way to fight autoist myth-making is not to substitute new bikey myths.
Autoists invented the crime of jaywalking in order to clear roads and streets of "speed bumps" and obstructions. That's the kind of story we need to tell.
And the antidote to our current myths of autoism will be fact-based histories and analyses, not romances with the penny farthing over and over.
|Wheelmen on parade in 1883 - via Glazer Antiquarian|
|Scorcher, May 3rd, 1903|
Another reason, then, to welcome the changes at the former-BTA is that they will contribute to de-romancing the bicycle and recognizing that people want to get around in multiple ways. Sometimes the car is in fact the best transportation tool. This will be a loss, of course. We want to think of the bike as special and of bicycling as a special endeavor. (We all want to be special!) But if it is going to go mainstream, biking will need to become more banal, background noise and neutral technology in many different lifestyles.* As icon, the penny farthing probably doesn't help with this. It might hinder it, in fact, because it puts the focus on the remoteness and exotica of 19th century bicycling, and deemphasizes its utility in that first bike boom with the safety bike.
I'm not sure I can prove it, but I feel like the penny farthing makes it easier to see people biking as weirdos and makes it easier not to take bike transport seriously. With the penny farthing, biking goes into the bin of historical curiosity or toy, and stays out of the bin of currently relevant technology. Representations of the penny farthing make it easier to dismiss the contemporary relevance of bicycling.
Old-timey nostalgia is fun, but it may not be useful, and may harm some of our other goals. The argument here is not that important, and it's a little pedantic to want to insist this way, but at the same time it still seems like it's relevant. When we show penny farthings, we should try to situate images of them more accurately in their historical context as best we know it.
* In an exchange the other day, a commenter suggested that
Portland, Eugene and Corvallis have higher rates of biking because those places provide a lifestyle that appeals to those that bike. Yes land use and engineering explain some of the difference but probably not as much as you think.Making bicycling available and attractive to more people than just those who identify with the lifestyle that orbits around a large university is an important reason to focus on infrastructure, land use, and engineering. Land use and engineering seem to be more neutral and more broadly available to people with different interests and affiliations. This is another reason not just to focus on lifestyle matters.