Thursday, June 9, 2016

A Slightly Cranky Note about Romancing the Penny Farthing

Did you see the story about the Centennial celebration for the Historic Columbia River Highway?

NY Times, 1924 (via columbiariverhighway)
The highway is a key milestone between the establishment of the State Highway Commission in 1913 and the establishment of the nation's first gas tax in 1919.

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
via BikePortland
Here is railroad baron and highway advocate Sam Hill (his mansion is now the Maryhill Museum) with the penny farthing.

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
The sidewalk riders in 1895 were mostly using safety bicycles, bikes with our modern diamond frame geometry and equal-sized wheels, not penny farthings.

Ad for Victor Bikes, throughout June 1895
In phone terms today, even in 1895 a penny farthing was a little like a mid-aughts flip phone or blackberry, old-fashioned compared the smartphones that prevail now. People still used older phones, but they were out of fashion and they weren't being sold regularly.

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"
But it represented the idea of bicycling and new freedom for women more than the reality. While there is solid evidence for women biking and using the safety bike geometry here in Salem, evidence for women using penny farthings here in Salem is mostly conjectural. Even if a few did it, it was not meaningfully popular and representative in that way. (The bike at the Mill is believed to be Otto J. Wilson's, not one associated with a woman here.)

Myrtle Card and Ernestine Levy in Salem, circa 1900
(Detail, Oregon State Library)
Even the safety bike sometimes gets involved in anachronism or myth. Here's a photoshopped image from a pamphlet for the Petal Pedal ride. While it is an homage to Governor Geer, totally beloved here, it represents an idea of him biking. The frame is a ladies step-through, not his bike, and the final image is a composite from multiple sources. Crucially, it is fiction.

This is photoshopped, not real
All this is so much nit-picking, it's true.

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
Nostalgia in some ways seems like a tool in the critique of autoism, but the penny farthing was employed mostly by wealthy white youth on club rides modeled after the military in a kind of extreme sport - and super serious about it. A little later, in the 1890s we had our first bike boom, and some of the stories there are useful to recover and retell. But bikes were still expensive then, and the leaders of that generation abandoned bikes and transitioned to the new leading edge technology, the automobile, in the early 1900s.

Scorcher, May 3rd, 1903
The first bike boom was a kind of golden age of bicycling, but it also had problems. As the sidewalk ordinance suggests, there were bad actors who were rude and sometimes harmed others. It is not possible to reconstruct that golden age as an innocent age. (At the same time, the majority of lawful, polite cycling went unremarked on in the press and is invisible to us today. The sidewalk ordinances and their spectacular violations also functioned to marginalize the new-fangled and unfamiliar.)

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.


Anonymous said...

Of course you can focus on whatever you wish but the "build it and they will come" theory seems as though it has been accepted as an article of faith on this blog rather than an evidence based conclusion. I do not see significant differences in land use and infrastructure between Salem and Corvallis. Davis, CA has some examples of some progressive bike infrastructure but it also seems to be, like Salem, built around low-density suburban land use patterns. Therefore it seems, at least possible, that land use and infrastructure are variables that explain very little about what make a city bike-friendly. Any serious evaluation of these factors needs to consider this bias toward self-selection.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Before I reply in more detail, could you clarify what exactly are you arguing for? It's still not clear. It seems your point is one or more of:

a) Salem needs a large university
b) Salem needs to swap out a large chunk of population for a group that is more interested in a bikey lifestyle
c) Salem cannot accomplish a) or b), and therefore it is generally not very useful to try to make for better bicycling and transportation here

If not one of these, what exactly are you arguing for? Thanks.