Golden Age of Cycling Historical Marker
King of the Road! historical marker
King of the Road! historical marker on fence, located in front of the San Francisco Mint
Backstory and Context
This marker shares the history of the 1890s when the bicycle became the "King of the Road." Bicycles offered a sense of personal freedom, especially for women, many of whom were able to navigate the city on their own for the first time. Nationwide sales of bicycles led to an era known as the Golden Age of Cycling, starting with the invention of a new "safety bicycle." Compared to earlier models that required tremendous balance, the safety bicycle featured two wheels of equal size which provided greater stability and speed compared to earlier models. Mass-marketed to the public, the affordable new style of bicycle became tremendously popular among both men and women.
Although in some states it remained illegal for women to cycle, in San Francisco and many other places, women found greater freedom because of the bicycle. Dress hems were shortened to facilitate mobility for cycling. Some women even broke with convention by switching to "bloomers" (puffy, ankle-length pants) with no corsets. In this way, the bicycle helped pave the way for the "rational dress" movement. It also contributed to the larger call for female freedom and agency, which was taken up by the suffragettes in the decades leading up to women's right to vote. Given the far less restrictive style of dressing and the greater freedom of movement that a bicycle provided, the cri de coeur of many female cyclists became "Deliverance, revolution, salvation!"
At the height of the bicycle craze in San Francisco, cyclists shared the road with streetcars and carriage horses. However, due to sheer numbers, the bicycle was soon dubbed the “King of the Road.” Golden Gate Park quickly became one of the most popular destinations for riding bicycles, especially for cycling in groups or clubs, such as The Ramblers or the Bay City Wheelman. The park became lined with hundreds of bicycle shops catering to the wildly popular new trend and selling every imaginable style of bicycle, from the one-speed safety bicycle to the two-person tandem bicycle and three-wheeled tricycle, as well as an older style of bicycle known as the penny farthing, which featured one large wheel in the front and one tiny wheel in the back.
During the Golden Age of Cycling, the bicycle set new trends and popular culture became shaped by the ubiquity of the bicycle across America. In San Francisco, songs like "Daisy, Daisy: A Bicycle Built for Two" could be heard on the airwaves, while newspaper columns reported on group bicycling clubs, trips, and events. In the 1890s, there was even an American-style version of the "Tour de France," the European bicycle race which was founded a few years later in 1903. In the U.S., riders competed in relay teams to bicycle across the country between San Francisco and New York City, a distance of 3,500 miles, while wearing yellow cycling gear. Known as the "Yellow Fellow Transcontinental Bicycle Relay," the competition took 13 days, with each rider bicycling a distance of 15 miles.
By 1896, scores of San Francisco bicyclists decided that it was time to demand better paved roads and paths for bicycling. During the "Good Roads Rally," some 5,000 bicyclists peddled two miles at night down Market Street, a main city thoroughfare that was covered with ruts and potholes. With the roadways lined with cheering spectators and the participating bicycles decorated with outrageous fashions, the cyclists successfully raised support for their plight. The rally resulted in several newly paved asphalt roads.
However, as the automobile gained prevalence in the early 1900s, the bicycle craze died out in San Francisco as in other parts of the country. Yet, over one hundred years later, the bicycle has once again regained much of its popularity in San Francisco as well as in other cities. In the second decade of the 21st century, San Francisco is witnessing a large-scale return of the bicycle. Programs like "Bike Share for All," offered by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, are rapidly increasing public access to bicycling as an ecologically friendly alternative to cars and as a social form of transportation and recreation. In San Francisco, it seems that the bicycle once again has the opportunity to become "King of the Road."
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Barry Swackhamer, The Historical Marker Database
Barry Swackhamer, The Historical Marker Database