How Bicycles Changed Princeton, 1860s-1910s

Bicycles are seemingly ubiquitous at and around Princeton University in our time. The ever-present sight of bicycles parked near campus buildings or cyclists making their way across campus or along the D & R Canal raises no eyebrows; their absence, as with the absence of other forms of traffic, was one of the most noteworthy aspects of local life during the COVID-19 shutdown of 2020. Yet there was once a Princeton where bicycles were unknown, and their appearance presented a concerning novelty.

Bicycle in Princeton, ca 1880s. Historical Photograph Collection, Student Photograph Albums Series (AC061), Box 186.

The earliest reference I’ve found to a bicycle in Princeton appeared in the Nassau Literary Magazine in 1869. The Lit, which referred to bicycles as “velocipedes,” noted that there was a local business offering cycling lessons at Mercer Hall, which functioned as a community center in town. The writer was concerned about what women would do when bicycles became popular, as it was apparently unthinkable for a woman to ride one. “Wouldn’t it seem strange to see the streets flooded with these curious bicycles,” the Lit mused. “The wise men of the day predict such a state of affairs as this; but we involuntarily exclaim, what of the ladies? … What will they do when these things come to pass? Will not some Yankee genius take pity and invent a new machine calculated for both sexes?”

Ad for Stearns Bicycles. Whatever local concerns might have been about women riding them, bicycles were marketed to both men and women in the late 19th century, after a handful of prominent female cyclists popularized the sport for women. 1897 Nassau Herald.

Although bicycles were known in Princeton in the late 1860s, it appears no student owned one until two students from the Class of 1879, brothers Cleveland Hoadley Dodge and William Earl Dodge III, bought and began to ride the new invention. On May 16, 1879, the Princetonian observed, “Two bicycles in College; start a club.” Percy Pyne of the Class of 1878 was also spotted riding one, but may not have owned his.

The Prince may have been joking when it suggested cyclists “start a club,” but a club nonetheless formed in the fall of 1879. The Prince described riding a bicycle in an unappealing way. “Interest in bicycling does not appear to be growing very rapidly in College. We have a few bicycles, and a few experts at riding them; but the number of enthusiastic novices to be found about the campus, engaged alternately in mounting the vehicle and picking themselves up from the ground, is small.” The Prince considered having a bicycle in town of limited use, since students weren’t allowed to leave town without permission, and riding solely within the limits of Princeton did not appeal to most. Still, the campus boasted 25 bicycles by the end of 1880. An estimated 12% of students had bicycles in 1883.

Roster of the Princeton Bicycle Club. 1883 Bric-a-Brac.

Cycling was becoming a recognized sport, and the first race at Princeton was held on November 5, 1879. This was followed by a race in the spring of 1880 that was part of the “Caledonian games,” i.e., a combination of what we would know as gymnastics and track and field. The bicycle club remained in existence for about five years before being absorbed into the Track Athletic Association, but then broke free again in 1899, when an independent Intercollegiate Bicycling Association formed and prompted Princeton to establish its own Bicycling Association. Along the way, one student, George Banker of the Class of 1896, became so enamored with cycling that he left college to take it up full time. Banker set the Princeton record for the fastest time in a two-mile bicycle race at 5 minutes, 32 seconds. After leaving Princeton, he became a professional cyclist in France.

As bicycles became more popular, they brought problems to solve, such as questions over where to park them. Princeton’s administration banned bicycle storage in dormitory entries in 1883, but students protested this as unreasonable. “We are told to take them to our own rooms—but how ridiculous this sounds, when our rooms are on the second, third or fourth floors.” Students requested a dedicated room in each building in which to “stable their machines.”

Bicycles on Prospect Avenue, 1896. Drawing printed in James W. Alexander’s Princeton, Old and New: Reflections of Undergraduate Life (1899).

Bicycles also brought crime. They saved time and brought a certain freedom to students, as the Princeton Alumni Weekly explained in 1900, but this made them appealing to thieves, too. The PAW asserted that “nearly every student seems to possess a bicycle.” Chapel attendance was mandatory, but presence in Chapel even one moment before it began was not; thus,

Sometimes, even when the bell is within a half-minute of sounding that memorably ominous indication of ceasing, the building may be almost empty, and so few comparatively can be seen coming that it seems possible that they have decided to cut in a body; when suddenly…there is heard the singular rustle made by pneumatic tires running over thin gravel, and here come the bicyclists. Hundreds of them, from as many directions as there are breakfast tables, on high frames and low frames, chainless bicycles and horribly painted bicycles—but long before all the varieties of wheels can be noted their owners have jumped off, leaned or dropped them anywhere, rushed through a narrow opening into the dark interior, and taken their seats…

Yet as current students may also have noticed, the PAW observed that one’s bicycle could be treated as community property if left unattended, and often undergraduates complained of other students taking their bicycles. Classified ads in the Prince began to frequently request the return of bicycles that had been taken.

Finally, bicycles were hard to see in the dark, and therefore a potential hazard, so in 1914 the state police compelled authorities to force students to put lamps on their bikes. A report from Princeton for the Trention Evening Times for November 15, 1914 said there was rampant disregard for the law requiring lamps on bicycles in Princeton. “Hundreds of students and scores of residents of the town ride bicycles here at night and more than one has been run down at night as a result of the riders not having lamps on their machines.”

Within a span of roughly half a century, bicycles went from useless extravagances to ubiquitous necessities, and from harmless novelties to common but problematic vehicles. Although we can easily point to technological advances that have similarly affected our own lives, it may be some consolation to remember that prior generations of Princetonians experienced rapid societal changes, too, and faced the need to adapt to them just as we do today.

 

Sources:

Alexander, James W. Princeton, Old and New: Recollections of Undergraduate Life (New York: Scribner’s, 1899).

Bric-a-Brac

Historical Photograph Collection, Student Photograph Albums Series (AC061)

Moffatt, James Hugh. Athletics at Princeton: A History. New York: Frank Presbrey Company, 1901.

Papers of Princeton

Princeton Alumni Weekly

2 thoughts on “How Bicycles Changed Princeton, 1860s-1910s

  1. Hi, April. So great to see your post. Regarding the comments about women and the bicycle, the early bikes were high-wheelers, with front wheels of 48 inches or more, and tiny rear wheels. Riders had no choice but to straddle the front wheels, and this was seen as unseemly for ladies–as well as nearly impossible if they were wearing the dresses of the day. There were a few famous female bicycle racers in the 1870s and 1880s who wore pants or shorts, but most people considered them to be rather scandalous.

    Conditions for lady cyclists improved dramatically in the late 1880s with the introduction of the safety bicycle, which had two wheels of equal circumference. This led to an explosion of cycling activity among women and brought about other societal changes which I detail in my book WHEELS OF CHANGE: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Changes Along the Way). Of course, I didn’t know any of this when I was pedaling to my classes at Princeton in the 1970s, but the liberating impact of the bicycle was apparent to me even then.
    –Sue Macy ’76

    • Thanks for the comment! Yes, there were clothing concerns, too. I recently wrote a post about anxieties about women, bicycles, and pants that may also interest you.

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