Bicycles: The Cure to "Newyorkitis"

By Evan Friss

"A Bicycle Picnic Party." Munsey's Magazine, May 1896

"A Bicycle Picnic Party." Munsey's Magazine, May 1896

Exercising for the sake of exercising was a relatively new phenomenon in the late nineteenth century. As part of what the historian John Higham has termed “The Reorientation of American Culture in the 1890s,” Americans grew weary of the “dullness of urban-industrial culture” by zealously seeking adventure, refuge in nature, and a sporting life. As a result, not only did parks and wildlife sanctuaries attract crowds of visitors, but participation in college athletics soared. Gymnasiums peppered the urban landscape. So did YMCAs. Emblematic of the new doctrine of “muscular Christianity,” YMCAs preached that athletics, recreation, and competition could instill character. Healthy people were good people; strength equaled morality. Americans quickly embraced “out-of-door” physical activities, imbibing the tenets of “the strenuous life.” Some advocates of cycling even argued that through physical activity urban vices would decline. In an article entitled “The Bicycle and Crime,” Cesare Lombroso, the well- known criminologist, reasoned that “the healthier men are, the better they are; and in so far as the bicycle makes for health it indirectly diminishes the cause of crime.”

Still, many fretted over the dangers of cycling for men and women who exercised too strenuously. The supposed consequences varied from an array of long-lasting ailments to the development of poor posture. Back and neck injuries were the most common concern. Explaining the dangers, one doctor alleged that a great many riders “contorted and distorted into hideous caricature of the shape of man -— a creature doubled upon itself, crouching as if in fear, its face peering intently and anxiously, with contracted brows, compressed lips, pallid cheeks, and restless eyes.” The many other supposed bicycle-related maladies included “bicycle hump, pop eye, bicycle neck, bicycle foot, and bicycle face.”

Overall, though, bicycles helped to usher in, and benefitted from, the new doctrine of physical exercise. At a sanitary convention held in Detroit in 1897, one member regretted that “within the last score of years a regular systematic physical exercise was practiced but slightly by our men and women.” Because of the bicycle, described as the greatest device “conducive to physical development,” all that was changing. A pair of doctors in 1896 declared, respectively, that “the evolution of the bicycle is probably the greatest factor which has influenced the spread of the doctrine of physical culture in this century” and that “thousands upon thousands of men and women who previous to a year or so ago never got any out-door exercise to speak of are now devoting half of their leisure time to healthy recreation.” While their claims may have exaggerated the facts, these three physicians represent but a small sampling of the sizable group who came to thank the bicycle for sparking an exercise revolution.

The benefits to newly active city dwellers were allegedly too many to count. Cycling exercised the rider’s heart, lungs, back, chest, abdomen, and legs while providing, as one physician described, “mental refreshment” in a unique combination benefiting both “the mind and the body.” This double dose of mental and physical well-being was widely described as cycling’s greatest gift. The combination, a bicycle cheerleader noted, was the perfect remedy for three of the most significant causes of poor health among city workers: too little fresh air, too little physical activity, and excessive mental fatigue. Of course, these workers were middle-class men working inside offices, sitting in chairs all day, not dockworkers or bricklayers.

As a prescription for mental and physical health, the bicycle was conceived of as more than an ordinary vehicle. In fact, the bicycle could allegedly cure almost any disorder. “It will soon be difficult to mention an ailment whose victims, provided they are not bedridden, may not, in somebody’s opinion, derive benefit from the use of the bicycle,” the New York Medical Journal noted in 1899. In aggregate, physicians and the converted credited the machine with improving digestion; strengthening the heart and the liver; reducing or eliminating melancholia, rheumatism, gout, anemia, hernia, exhaustion, nervousness, aches, pains, and even homosexual desires; reducing fat; and developing courage, independence, intellect, and muscles. These curative powers were just some of the many reasons the bicycle was regarded as an almost perfect instrument that could, if applied broadly, yield a utopian city.

A Sunday in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, 1896. Munsey's Magazine, May 1896

A Sunday in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, 1896. Munsey's Magazine, May 1896

Even for those wealthier residents who could often secure a more spacious and airy environment, a frenetic pace of life and living in such dense cities were the prime suspects in a number of urban maladies. Nervousness, fatigue, and depression were common symptoms of “neurasthenia,” a widespread nineteenth- century diagnosis that characterized the ill effects of urbanization and the increased rapidity of daily life. City life and the overstimulation that came with it -— the feverish pace, the ringing noise, office work, and so forth—overtaxed urbanites’ nerves, leading to neurological disorder, or so the theory went. The drudgery of modern life and work afflicted these largely middle-class professionals. In New York particularly, doctors diagnosed a series of diseases wrought by overexposure to the urban environment. One doctor even defined a new condition, “Newyorkitis.” Supposedly it afflicted countless Manhattanites, especially those who had recently moved from the country to the city. As Dr. John Girdner wrote: “Newyorkitis is a disease in which the mind, soul, and body have departed more or less from the normal . . . the mental appetite of a Newyorkitic is morbid and perverted.”

In one respect, riders and doctors endorsed cycling to increase vigor, steady nerves, and, in many cases, cure neurasthenia and other maladies. One of many converts said: “I felt that the bicycle had saved my life. Certainly it did save me from a complete breakdown. . .” Doctors agreed. Lombroso, the criminologist who was also a physician, found that cycling could aid neurasthenia, chronic headaches, and an assortment of other ailments. He described the bicycle as “not a luxury, but a necessity” for anyone subject to “mental tension and nervous irritability,” meaning, perhaps, anyone living in the modern American city. Other physicians documented their success in using the bicycle to treat neurasthenics. In an 1892 article, a well- known physician revealed that for each of his six patients the bicycle proved to be the long-awaited remedy.

Yet speeding bicycles also played a part in the quickening of urban life and the accompanying mental fatigue. As an innovation in technology and speed, the bicycle emblematized the larger processes of urbanization and industrialization that stood at the heart of the newfound nervousness. Thus it was conceived of as both a cause of, and solution for, the chaotic nature of urbanity. Some riders took the exhilaration too far. Scorchers sped around the city. Drag racers turned ordinary roads into makeshift velodromes. And speed limits and traffic laws did little to slow the rising number of traffic accidents. In this sense, bicycles added to the industrial roar of the American city -— the clanging of pipes and the thunderous movements of the elevateds, the chaos on the streets and the mediumspeed collisions, the obsession with speed and time saved. In fact, vehicles that supplied their users with superior speeds only created more demand for even greater speeds.

The bicycle, then, was no simple “machine in the garden,” teasing out tension between technological progress and the pastoral ideal. By offering urbanites a physical and mental escape from the city, the bicycle served as more than a tool promoting the rise of the industrial city. The bicycle was less a machine in the garden and more of a machine to get to the garden. And it was the garden that provided the healthful tonics for the urban cyclists. In other words, the cleaner and healthier cities were the ones with the easiest exits.

Supporters also argued that the bicycle would lay the foundation for healthier people in generations to come. With more cyclists, one advocate promised, “we would have a stronger race.” Not alone, others proposed that cycling “adds joy and vigor to the dowry of the race” and that “the bicycle promises substantial improvement to our race.” In almost Darwinian language, promoters of cycling imagined that the physical strength and mental fortitude endowed by the great machine would have long- lasting, perhaps even evolutionary, consequences. As one author foresaw: “For my part, I venture to predict that the real cyclo-anthropos of the twentieth century will suffer less from his nerves and will be more muscular than the man of the nineteenth century.” Supporters believed that the decisions they made now -— exercising brain and body -— would have repercussions on future generations. Strong mothers, fit fathers, and a resolute race awaited a future generation, bred, in part, by the bicycle. The bicycle was not the only technology that produced this kind of evolutionary thinking. Less than two decades later, at least one writer hypothesized that air travel could produce a superhuman (the “alti-man”), god-like, omniscient being who could fly through the air.

Riverside Park, 1895. Harper's Weekly, June 15, 1895

Riverside Park, 1895. Harper's Weekly, June 15, 1895

In an era when health consciousness deepened and bicycles were widely accepted as a tool to relieve the stress of urban life and improve the health of its riders, bicycle manufacturers marketed their wares as not only practical vehicles and a means of recreation but also as health products. Cycling advertisements and catalogs frequently referred to the advantages of exercise via the wheel and its medicinal effects. A 1901 advertisement for Monarch Bicycles promised that “An hour awheel with nature is the best tonic for the busy business man.” Not only did bicycles provide physical health; the ad also claimed that cycling “broadens the mind and kills the worry.” An 1891 advertisement for Columbia Bicycles published in Cosmopolitan emphasized cycling’s health benefits specifically for women, as two images display the intended benefits of riding. The first woman is ailing, relegated to a chair, and glancing over at a vase holding a flower. The second woman is shown on her bicycle, stopped on the side of the road, merrily picking wild flowers. In a different manner altogether, the ad also speaks to a male audience. A portion of the text reads: “Is your wife an invalid? Are you constantly paying doctor’s bills?” If so, the solution is a Columbia.

A single 1893 catalog from the Pope Manufacturing Company advertising its Columbia bicycles included paragraphs of endorsements attesting to the healthy lifestyles led by its devotees. Not surprisingly, all of the endorsements came from members of the professional class. After all, they were the ones most likely to be buying bicycles in 1893 and the ones doctors worried about the most. A lawyer suggested that the bicycle was the perfect solution to remedy “the brain and nerve tissue destroyed in exacting professional work, performed in ill-ventilated offices, or worse ventilated court rooms . . .” H. W. Smith, a city businessman, concurred, suggesting that cycling did more for health than other sports. Not to be outdone, a clergyman joined the choir of bicycle-endorsers when he described the calming effects of riding: “I have found it beneficial to my health in lifting off that burden of weariness that comes after brain effort, or nervous strain, or tiresome tramping in parochial work.” While these endorsements could easily be written off as marketing hogwash, ordinary cyclists and doctors in the 1890s regularly reported the same effects. Not unlike his competitors, Pope realized that much of his customer base was comprised of men and women who fretted about the debilitating effects of urban life. As the catalogs and advertisements tried to make clear, the bicycle was more than a vehicle. It was a prescription for better health.

Cycling manufacturers and marketers were not the only ones looking to cash in on the conviction that bicycles could remedy urbanity’s insalubriousness. Accordingly, health companies regularly sponsored cycling guidebooks, which offered suggested routes, maps, road conditions, and lists of cyclist-friendly hotels and restaurants. In just one example, the Pond’s Extract Co. published a thirty-two-page pamphlet in 1897 of “Twenty- Five Charming Trips” to deliver New Yorkers out of the city. Sprinkled throughout the suggested routes were testimonials of Pond’s Extract’s curative properties. While the extract could treat bloody noses and a host of other ills, the pastoral scenery of the countryside would provide a therapeutic release for city dwellers -— a truly holistic combination.


Evan Friss is Assistant Professor of History at James Madison University. This is an excerpt from his new book, The Cycling City: Bicycles and Urban America in the 1890s (University of Chicago Press).