Victorian Bicycles: History and Their Impact

Updated October 7, 2021
Kangaroo bicycle, c.1878.

Although two-wheeled machines had been in use since ancient times, Victorian bicycles changed the world in many ways, ushering the western world's sense of mobility and freedom into the technical era. A mechanical phenomenon, these early bicycles took many years to transform into the standard bikes that we know and love today. Much like their motorcycle counterparts, the Victorian bicycles came in all shapes and sizes, making them a wonderful collectible to display in your home or even possibly ride yourself,

The Development of the Bicycle

At first the bicycle, called a Dandy Horse, had no pedals and the rider merely moved his feet to move forward. By 1840, this design had been improved upon, with cranks to the rear axle. This attached the rear wheels to the pedals with driving rods. In the 1860s, this method changed when Frenchmen Pierre Michaux and Pierre Lallement added a mechanical crank drive. This allowed pedals to be located on either side of the large front wheel. Finally in 1888, Scotsman John B. Dunlop invented pneumatic tires which replaced the iron and rubber wheels from years prior and created a smoother, more comfortable ride.

The evolution of the bicycle, 19th century,

The Velocipede (1860s)

The Velocipede, also known as the boneshaker for the severe vibrations that radiated from the frame and into someone's body, was a bicycle that had iron tires for those riders interested in durability. These iron tires meant that there was no shock absorption, and the rider would ride down the cobblestone streets would be shaken painfully about. Victorian society had a remedy for that and created indoor riding arenas called riding academies. These were very much like roller skating rinks and became so popular that a fad was started.

The High Wheel Bicycle (1870s)

Just a decade following the boneshaker, one of the first successful Victorian bicycle designs to manifest was the High Wheel Bicycle (also known as the Penny Farthing). The frame was made of tubular steel and the front wheel was huge in comparison to the back wheel, meaning that it was difficult to balance because of the resulting poor weight distribution. On some models of this bicycle, the front wheel was over five feet tall. Because of the lack of even weight distribution, riders generally spent time recovering from the many falls that they took. In fact, the idiom 'taking a header' to describe a fall was coined during this time. When a rider tried to stop, he often found himself landing on his head on the ground.

Victorian High Wheel Bike

Other new features of the Penny Farthing bicycle were:

  • Spoke wheels
  • Solid rubber tires
  • Extremely high seat

The Dwarf Ordinary (1880s)

The Dwarf Ordinary, also known as the Kangaroo, evolved from the large wheeled Victorian bicycle in the mid-1880s and was designed with the purpose of making the Penny Farting safer for people to ride. In the end, it still bore quite a similar resemblance to the Penny Farthing, but some positive changes that were made to the bicycle include:

  • Reduced front wheel diameter
  • Seat set further back
  • Addition of gears
  • Introduction of the chain drive
  • Addition of the seat

Other Innovations (1890s)

In the late 1890s, cycling had become a way of life. With the added luxury of not having to walk everywhere they wanted to go, Victorians were encouraged to engage in more and more recreation activities, helping them get outside of their homes and establish strong social ties with their community. Similarly, the introduction of the tandem bicycle brought a new element of fun and flirtation to a rather practical item, and couples could enjoy a quick ride with one another around the park or down to the store. The final decade of the century also brought with it the safety bicycle - the same-sized wheeled bicycle that people love riding today.

Lady and gentleman riding ordinary bicycles with Starley wheels, 1874

Victorian Bicycles Become Transportation

Although a Victorian bicycle could cost as much as 150 dollars (several months' salary), this new sport became so popular that cycling clubs sprung up all over the country. In fact, cycling schools began popping up for people to learn how to ride their new equipment, and according to the Smithsonian, "The number of bicycles in use boomed as production rose from an estimated 200,000 bicycles in 1889 to 1,000,000 in 1899." With people riding bicycles, the roads had to be of higher quality than they had been before, and roadways began to be smoothed and graded. This eased the way for the introduction of the automobile later on.

Inner cities became less crowded as workers moved farther out. They now had the ability to commute more of a distance than they had before. It took three times as long to walk somewhere as it did to bicycle there. The country began to enjoy newfound freedom.

Bicycles Liberate Victorian Women

Women, who had been unable to get around without a male companion in the past, had new mobility in the bicycle. Susan B. Anthony, the famous suffragist, praised the bicycle as an emancipator of women; she believed that it did more to give women freedom than anything else in the world had up to that time. Even women's fashions began to change as a result. Traditional corsets and bustles impeded women's ability to ride their bicycles, so sports corsets and pantaloons were devised to keep women as active as possible. However, the number of women who gravitated towards wearing pantaloons was actually rather small, as cultural sentiments remained strict concerning acceptable social conventions. Thus, some women chose to ride tricycles, a kind of mix between pedal cars and the regular mechanics of typical Victorian bicycles.

Victorian women on bicycles

The Bicycle's Impact on Technology

Manufacturing and improving bicycles led to advancements in technology that would affect everything from metal working to the automobile industry. Even some of the technology necessary to create a working aircraft was developed during this time.

More than one automobile company began as a bicycle manufacturer, among them include:

  • Morris Motor Company
  • Skoda
  • Rover Company

Victorian Bicycles As Collectibles

Interestingly, you can actually purchase fully-functional replicas of these Victorian bicycles if you're interested in taking it on a spin around the block. Of course, you probably won't be ready to enter the X Games with your new Penny Farthing anytime soon, but having one around can be a really entertaining lesson in practical applications of the past. These replicas cost about as much as high-quality bicycles do today in the low to mid-$1,000s. But if you're less interested in taking one of these bad boys for a spin yourself than you are in using it to decorate your new robin's egg blue wall, then you're in for a bumpy ride ahead.

How to Collect Victorian Bicycles

The first step when looking for a genuine Victorian bicycle is checking as many auction retailers that you can find to see if they have any Victorian bicycles currently available. Given that these are such large items, it's less likely that many people have kept their great-grandparent's bikes intact, and so the number of bicycles out there to collect are significantly smaller than collectibles like glassware. That being said, if you want to find one immediately, it's in your best interest not to be picky with whichever bicycle you can find first. If you have a specific model in mind, you might be waiting years to see one come available. Similarly, these bicycles are really easy to identify as antiques, since most often their metal pieces show noticeable age and bear logos from companies that're no longer in production.

Cost of Antique Victorian Bikes

Similarly, you need to be aware that these bicycles - given their size and hardware - cost a sizable amount of money. Generally, you're going to be looking at paying somewhere between $500-$1,000 at a minimum for a medium quality bicycle with some rusting and wear and tear.

Innovation and Recreational Art Collide

It's undeniable that the bicycle changed society and paved the way for the development of the automobile and the many massive sociocultural shifts that came because of that. It changed the way people lived and gave them freedoms that they had never had before, challenging people's views of their limitations, their community, and their gender roles. In short, Victorian bicycles are fascinating reminders of a rapidly changing era that was the foundation of the life you enjoy today.

Victorian Bicycles: History and Their Impact