Walkabout: Knights of the Knickerbockers, Part 1


    Postcard via eBay

    Bike lanes and the rights of the bicycle riding public are a hot topic, here in NY, in 2011. The bike seems more popular than ever in our city’s history, but the truth is that New Yorkers, and Brooklynites in particular, have been fascinated with bicycles for over 130 years.

    The first practical ancestor of the modern bike was called the draisnine, invented in 1819 by a German named Baron Karl Von Drais. He called his invention a running machine. It soon evolved into the velocipede, a year later in England.

    Take your basic one speed bike, remove the pedals and brakes, lower the frame and seat so that while sitting, your feet are firmly on the ground, and you have the velocipede. It was a two-wheeled, adult sized baby walker, and it was hugely popular when it appeared in 1818.

    Biking History in Brooklyn

    Photo via QuigleysCabinet.com

    Young dandies, racing along the boulevards, were known to go through many pairs of shoes, as these proto-bicycles ran on foot power.

    Fast forwarding to the 1870’s, the French, who gave us the word bicycle, gave us the first high wheeled bicycle, so popular in any Victorian park scene. The earliest bicycle clubs in New York, in the early 1880’s, would have used these bicycles.

    These proved to be amazingly popular, considering they were not easy to ride, and sprains, bruises and broken bones could result from a bad spill.

    The first safety bicycle, with equal sized wheels, a steerable front wheel, and a chain drive attaching the pedals to the back wheel, was produced in England by John Kemp Starley, in 1885. The tire manufacturer, Dunlop, soon invented the pneumatic (inflatable) rubber bicycle wheel, and the basic bicycle we recognize today was in production in North America by the early 1890’s.

    Biking History in Brooklyn

    Photo via Brooklyn Parks

    The bicycle craze, also called the Golden Age of Bicycling had begun.

    As in most things, the bicycle mania was begun by the middle and upper classes, the only people who had a measure of recreational time, and could afford bicycles when they first became popular. Clubs and societies soon formed for enthusiasts to gather together and go riding.

    The first bicycle club in New York City began in 1880. Brooklyn soon followed, and by the turn of the century, had a multitude of clubs. One of the first Brooklyn clubs was the Kings County Wheelmen, which by 1882, was headquartered in Williamsburg.

    Biking History in Brooklyn

    Photo via Brooklyn Parks

    These early cycling clubs were not for dilettantes. The Wheelmen were serious athletes, racers, as well as precision riders, and excursion cyclists.

    They were soon joined by the Brooklyn Wheelmen, the Brooklyn Bicycle Club, the Long Island Wheelmen, the Heights Wheelmen, the Bedford Bicycle Club and the Ildrion Bicycle Club. All of the clubs at this time were male only.

    Like sports teams, they all had club colors and uniforms, and some even had a club song. By the 1890’s, the wealthier clubs built or rented their own clubhouses, which usually had a dining room, large meeting room, billiards and other game rooms, and a lot of gleaming indoor bicycle racks. No doubt, party central.

    The press loved these guys, and followed their races, their parades and activities in great detail. Between 1882 and 1902, the Brooklyn Eagle had over 1000 entries for the Kings County Wheelmen alone.

    The reporters tended to wax eloquent talking about the wheelmen, as they were always called, not bicyclists. One reporter called them devotees of the steel steed, while another called them Knights of the Knickerbocker, referring to the cycling costumes with short pants, worn by the clubmen.

    In 1883, many of the clubs of Brooklyn, including the Kings County and Heights Wheelmen, as well as the Brooklyn Bicycle Club, staged an evening parade and exhibition that made its way up Fulton Street up to Montague Street, before ending at the BBC’s clubhouse at 366 Livingston Street.

    Each club had a captain, who served as a drum major of sorts, and all of the clubs were in full dress regalia, with their bugler and color bearer in front. All of the bicycles (still high wheels, at this time) had colored paper in their spokes, and a lantern fixed to their handlebars.

    When they passed the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which was still on Montague Street, each club did fancy tricks and feats of great skill in front of the reviewing stand, before going on to the clubhouse.

    The reporter from the Eagle pointed out that the audience was most appreciative, and many a young lady was smitten by the sight of these daredevils, who were also showing off their well-turned calves. Knights of the Knickerbocker indeed.

    It wasn’t all fun and games for the riders. Bicycle races were the heart and soul of many of these clubs. They participated in races that took place in various armories, racetracks, and at venues like the Cleremont Rink, in Fort Greene.

    There the Brooklyn clubs competed against each other, and with other local clubs from Manhattan and Long Island. Speed and time records were set and broken, champions and challengers vied to be the best racers, and the best overall clubs.

    They also participated in long bike excursions, going all the way to Coney Island from the Heights along Ocean Parkway, or cycling to places in Long Island or upstate, as far as 50 miles away. That may not sound far now, but try it on a one speed bike with hard rubber tires.

    As the manufacture of bicycles became an assembly-line operation with pre-cast parts, (the principals of bicycle manufacture would be the inspiration of Ford’s automobile assembly lines) the price of a bicycle began to lower, and more and more people could afford one.

    More and more clubs were formed, and like all things New York in the 1890’s and early 20th century, most of them formed along lines of class and ethnicity.

    The League of American Wheelmen, a national body to which most established clubs belonged, did not allow blacks to race with them or join their clubs, because they didn’t want to offend their southern members, so African-American racers formed their own clubs, and had their own races.

    Almost every ethnic group in New York had their own clubs and organizations: the Italians, Germans, Swedes, Belgians and Irish. There were also Polish, Chinese, Japanese, Mongolian, and even a Norseman’s club. Many of these clubs had women as members, and many women had clubs of their own.

    Some of the men’s clubs would also later allow women. The bicycle would be a great emancipator of women, and an important part of our tale.

    The popularity of biking among women is a huge part of the new independence many women were feeling at the turn of the 20th century.

    It allowed them a measure of independence, and even daring, that many had never experienced before. It was also great exercise and great fun. The importance and popularity of ladies on bicycles, and the impact of cycling on Brooklyn will form the conclusion of our story next time.

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