I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
After a day of manual labour in the fields, few men were interested in long walks in search of a bride. The result was that for centuries rural populations were marked by inbreeding and the birth defects that went along with cousins marrying one another. With the invention of the bicycle, young men could travel much farther afield to find a spouse.
Before the Bicycle
Finding and meeting a woman of marriageable age has been a preoccupation of young men for thousands of years. But, tracking down a suitable wife was always a challenge involving desire and distance.
For the wealthy, distance was something that could be overcome with horses and carriages, but the average working man's search was limited by how far his feet could carry him.
A man with a lot of time on his hands can walk about 25 miles (40 km) in a day. But, working men in the pre-bicycle age did not have much leisure time; a 12-hour day of manual labour on inadequate food left little energy for a long hike.
A horse could take an ardent suitor 30 miles (48 km) from home in a day, but no working man could afford to own a horse.
The bicycle made its debut early in the 19th century but it wasn’t until the late 1800s that mass production brought its price down so that it was within reach of the average man. Now, the lads and their genetic material could get about in wider swaths of the countryside. The selection of love interests was greatly increased and the gene pool was enriched with greater diversity.
P.J. Perry’s Study
In 1969, geographer P.J. Perry completed a study of how the gene pool changed in rural Dorset in western England. What he found was that before 1887, 77 percent of marriages took place between people from the same parish. However, between 1907 and 1916, this had dropped to 41 percent.
At the same time, marriages among people who lived between six and 12 miles apart doubled. But, Perry pointed out that “It must equally be remembered that, as late as 1927-36, three-quarters of all working-class marriages were to a distance of less than 12 miles.”
Perry concluded that the greater genetic diversity brought about by the change in distance between marriage partners was caused by the arrival of the bicycle.
This is a finding backed up by geneticist, Steve Jones who has written “There is little doubt that the most important event in recent human evolution was the invention of the bicycle.”
Bicycle manufacturers soon latched on to the appeal of their products as aids to courting.
Their advertising featured winsome lasses and buff young men out for a bicycle ride in lush countryside. Is there an unspoken hint that a private leafy bower might be found where a little discreet canoodling can take place?
Fast forward and we find female mountain bike champions in skin-tight kit adorning the advertisements today.
But, advertisers would never use sex to sell something would they?
Enterprising manufacturers such as the Punnett Cycle Company put what became known as the “Buddy” or “Sociable” bicycle on the market. The riders sat beside each other, rather than for and aft on a tandem. Couples could be in close proximity to each other―touching even.
A four-wheeled version had provision for a pesky chaperone to ride along behind the sweethearts.
Starting in the 1880s, bicycle touring clubs were formed to encourage men and women to take to the byways in a group. Couples or singles would join others on trips out of town and into the country. A picnic beside a babbling brook or similarly innocuous venue was often a part of the festivities.
In 1895, The New York Times waxed lyrical: “The Cycle Club of Brooklyn has already gone into history because of its prosperity and increasing growth during the Winter, its prettiest and most charming of all Brooklyn’s pretty and charming young women; the best of her young men; the most esteemed heads of families and attractive matrons; because of its costume rides, and its sociable teas, champion polo and football team, and because of its nice little merry-go-round organ, to the music of whose tuneful airs its members swing gaily around the ring morning, noon, and night.”
However, there were mutterings among the moralists of the Victorian era. According to The Encyclopedia Britannica these excursions were greeted with “Public cries of alarm at the prospect of moral chaos.”
As the women wore less and less voluminous apparel it was assumed that lusty male cyclists would be driven into some sort of sexual frenzy. Bad things would happen.
Inevitably, relationships formed. It’s interesting to speculate on how many people alive today owe their existence, indirectly, to the bicycle.
- There are about one billion bicycles in the world and half of these are in China. Is it just a coincidence that China is the world’s most populous nation, and did the bicycle play a part?
- On the basis of calories burned per kilo, per kilometre, the bicycle is the most efficient form of transportation.
- In September 2018, Denise Mueller-Korenek set the world’s bicycle speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Following a converted dragster she covered one mile at 183.932 mph (296.009 km/h).
- “Professor Bicycle’s Top Ten Social Impacts of the Bicycle.” Professor Ross D. Petty, Babson College, December 1999.
- “The Working Class in Britain: 1850-1939.” John Benson, I.B. Tauris, August 2003.
- “Revolution!” Julie Wheelwright, BBC History, July 2000.
- “Cycling.” Samuel Abt, Encyclopedia Britannica, undated.
- “The Bittersweet History of Bike Clubs.” J. David Goodman, New York Times, January 19, 2010.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on February 03, 2019:
There was a big fuss over what was called “rational clothing.” This was a divided skirt that made cycling more practical. But some women were subjected to insults and were even pelted with stones and other missiles. Can you imagine what these folks would think of the naked bike rides that are held annually in cities around the world? Probably fatal seizures on the sidewalk.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on February 03, 2019:
I never considered the impact the invention of biycles made for any community. I can only imagine what people had to say when women wore less clothing in order to ride. Thanks Rupert for a fascinating bit of history.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on February 01, 2019:
The impact of other forms of transportation has been enormous. My parents were married in 1938 and lived almost next door to each other.
My wife and I were born 5,534 km apart. I have been best man at the weddings of two school friends. One couple were born 5,026 km apart and the other 18,942 km from each other.
Liz Westwood from UK on February 01, 2019:
I had never looked at the impact of the bicycle on society like this before. I wonder how much the car and other forms of modern transport have impacted society and the distance between prospective spouses.