VIVE LE VELOCIPEDE
In France, Ernest Michaux is considered the ‘father of the bicycle.’ He and brother Pierre added cranks and pedals to improve the earlier Draisienne bicycle. 1868-70 was the heyday of the velocipede in France. This novel means of personal transportation caught the public imagination, and blacksmiths, carriage makers and wheelwrights were encouraged to construct either parts for velocipedes or complete machines.
French makers in the period between 1868 and 1870 are renowned for the high standard of velocipedes that came onto the market before the Franco-Prussian War (19 July 1870 – 10 May 1871). That conflict destroyed the new velocipede-building industry in France and production moved to England.
British velocipedes soon outnumbered those from other countries. The International Velocipede and Loco-machine Exhibition at Crystal Palace in September 1869 saw over 200 machines, from Britain, France, Belgium, Germany and America on display.
The ‘diableries’ are a contemporary series of stereoview cards using plasticine to create devilish scenes. You can imagine Victorians in their parlours in the 1860s viewing such images on their stereoscopes in the same way we’d watch TV today. Two of the series feature velocipedes. The first is ‘Course de Vélocipèdes’
The other is ‘Les Pompiers de l’Enfer’ (The Firemen from Hell), below.
At first the press did not fully appreciate the achievements of this new machine and what it meant for the future. However, soon everyone started to recognize the importance of this new mode of transport – a velocipede may have been expensive, but it did not need food and stabling like a horse. And it could be used for independent long-distance travel. It required athletic abilities for long journeys, was dangerous down hills, and it scared the living daylight out of other road users and pedestrians …but a velocipede is actually surprisingly reliable. Velocipedes were raced extensively. In France, even women raced velocipedes! Below you can see the first ladies’ velocipede race (Le Monde Illustre, 1st November, 1868).
The American Harper’s Weekly (19th December 1868) covered the story too; but in their illustration, below, the women’s bare legs have been covered!
The weekly satirical magazine The Ferret added to comments of the day. Its cover of March 22nd, 1870, illustrates women riding velocipedes with extremely risque attire.