Bike Touring Just Like They Did In 1896

This is going to be the greatest summer for wheel touring that the country has ever seen, for there are nearly 1,000,000 more wheelmen this year than there were before last, and the bicyclist who took his first ride in 1895 will, ten chances to one, take his first tour in 1896. Sewell Ford, reporter and bike-touring fanatic

Let’s travel back to 1896 when bicycle touring, already popular in France and England, suddenly became a big thing in the United States.

An article in the April 21, 1896 Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester, New York, by an unnamed reporter was titled: “Bicycle Touring And How To Do It … Hints For The Tourists.” An article by Sewell Ford ran in several newspapers in May 1896, one of which was titled: “Summer Tours Awheel: A Pleasant and Healthful Way of Spending a Vacation.”

Bike riding was already tremendously popular in the United States, “but, until this year there has been comparatively little of the two weeks’ or two months’ touring,” the Democrat and Chronicle article stated, despite the fact that this “is the best use to which a wheel can be put.”

So much of what these unnamed reporters, who seemed to know a thing or two about bike touring, wrote and suggested still holds true 126 years later. Especially the part about touring being the best use to which a wheel can be put.

The Democrat and Chronicle article goes on to say that European bike tours were popular, so “why not here? If a tour is possible in Europe, it certainly is possible in America, and to him who has eyes to see there is much to see and learn about his own country, if he goes on a wheel, that never can be seen in any other way.”

Bike touring was now possible in the United States because there “is not a village of any size, to say nothing of towns and cities, that has not one repair shop … Hotels are now accustomed to bicyclists. There was a time when many a hotel had a regulation that no one in a bicycle costume was permitted to enter the dining room, but such inns are fast getting behind the times.”

Our friend Sewell, who was badly bitten by the biking bug, described the symptoms of bike-touring fanaticism: “He carries his pockets full of maps and asks all sorts of questions about cities far removed from his habitat. He gets up early in the morning and takes long runs to get himself in condition, and loses interest in everything not connected with the wheel.”

I certainly know those feelings.

Sewell goes on to write that “the number of touring bicyclists this year will run up into the hundreds of thousands. They will penetrate to every out of the way corner of the land …”

How fast? How far?

The  Democrat and Chronicle article explained that speed is not of the essence on a bike tour. Nor is it important to accumulate massive miles every day. I agree with this in principle, but find it hard to adhere to when I’m actually on a bike tour.

The Democrat and Chronicle story stated: “If you feel like doing a good bit one day, it is possible. If you feel like staying abed the next day, or taking a walk, that is possible, too … One man will have quite a good time on two weeks’ tour covering 100 miles as another covering 1,000.”

The writer uses “he,” but women were also riding bikes and touring. But couldn’t yet vote. And had to deal with a lot of crap. A story in the May 29, 1896 Brooklyn Times reported that in France “women are held in such subjection to the men that the consent of their father or husband is required before they are permitted to join a Bicycle Touring Club.” The freedom women gained from cycling helped spark the suffragette movement. Here’s my previous story on what women cyclists were up against back then.


Then, as now, packing was vital. Unlike now, no panniers. Here’s what Sewell wrote about proper packing:

“The bicycle luggage carriers which are made to fit inside the diamond frame have done much to simplify the matter. It is amazing how much one of triangular valises will hold. If the wheelman has wisely decided that he will wear his ordinary bicycle costume on all occasions, he will find that all the clothing necessary for an all summer’s trip can be put into the carrier.”

Aha! This is why it was so vital that hotels allowed guests in bicycle costumes entry into their dining rooms.

Sewell has one more important packing recommendation: “…the one great necessity is a good supply of clean underwear.” Here’s the link to my post on packing and how hi-tech underwear has changed everything!

Where to go

Here are some of the routes the Democrat and Chronicle article suggests: Boston to New York; New York to Washington, D.C.; New York to Buffalo and Niagara Falls; Chicago to Buffalo or St. Louis.

Sewell wrote that popular bike trips were to “the big seashore resorts on the Atlantic coast,” the Great Lakes and some brave cyclists will even “ride boldly up to the Rocky range, push their way into the center of the Adirondacks and the White Mountains, and make glad the heart of the isolated innkeeper from Skowhegan [in Maine] to San Jose.”

Interested in cycling history? Here’s the link to my post about my new book (The Boy With No Legs Who Rode LIke the WIND) and here’s the etsy link to get the book.


The Democrat and Chronicle reported that the words “mountain” and “hills” have “a dangerous sound to wheelmen …”

Why were mountains and hills such a problem? No gears back then. So, climbing was quite a bit more difficult. The article recommends it is “really wiser and pleasanter to walk up all hills that are steep. If you see a pretty brook and a shady tree near it, and the spirit again moves, again dismount and read a volume out of the portmanteau [suitcase], or lie quietly, enjoying one of the privileges of a bicycle trip – a little commune with honest nature …”

The origin of

It seems, back then, almost anyone would feed you and put you up for the night if you asked nicely. Here’s what the Democrat and Chronicle article advised …

“If you grow weary five miles out [from your destination], stop at the first decent-looking house and tell the housewife you are on a pleasure tour, that you want to rest, or hope for a glass of milk, or a dinner of a bed. She will help you out if you pay, and often if you don’t: but should she refuse, try the next house … for as sure as there is a wheel resting up against the house anywhere you will be received and comforted.”

And, be kind and courteous to your hosts: “take the baby on your knee; show Johnny how the wheels go round and scratch the cat’s back. All these will open the spare bed room and the larder, to say nothing of the hostess’s heart …”

Sewell preferred hotels. And noted they were already quite used to bike touring groups. “A room on the first floor is generally reserved for the wheelmen, and in it is often found an attendant who is ready to pump up tires, clean and oil wheels and make himself generally useful.”

One too many?

The Democrat and Chronicle article advised travelling alone or with only one other person.

“One man can enjoy such a trip hugely. Two, if they are congenial, can, also; but never go with three and usually not with four or more. Somebody is always getting punctured or falling ill, or not waking up or wanting to rest. If you are alone you can usually agree with yourself, though sometimes that is hard work, and even two make the agreeing more difficult.”

I’m not sure if I agree with this reporter. Then again, I’ve only ever toured by myself or with one other person. And, we’ve never had a problem coming to an agreement … so long as my riding companion agrees with me!

Why we ride

Sewell summed up the pleasures of cycle touring as “the long coasts down strange hills, the well relished dinners at country hotels, the afternoon siestas by the roadside, the making of new and pleasant acquaintances … that, once experienced, is never forgotten.”

Here’s the etsy link to this book, that includes lots more wacky, fascinating and amazing bicycle-history stories….


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