The bicycle comes to Monroe County in 1890s

By Amy Leiser, Executive Director
Monroe County Historical Association

In the 1890s, a wonder in technological innovation came to Monroe County — the bicycle — and this simple and personal form of transportation revolutionized the population. Up until this time, anyone who needed to travel did so by foot, by horse, by wagon, or by rail. Easy access to an automobile was still a generation or two away.

The first known bicycle was designed and crafted in France in 1790. While this early bicycle had two wheels and a long wooden “seat” holding the machine securely together, it had neither steering nor propulsion. The rider simply straddled the seat and used his or her feet to push the bicycle forward.

By the 1860s, bicycles had improved somewhat; their designs included steering bars and pedals, and the body of the bicycle was made entirely of wood with wheels constructed of metal. Such bicycles were so uncomfortable to ride that they became known as “boneshakers.”

Regarding bicycling during this time, the famous author, Mark Twain said, “Get a bicycle. You will certainly not regret it, if you live.” By the 1890s, great strides had been made in bicycle construction, and the “safety bicycle” was introduced. The development of gears and pneumatic tires allowed bicycles to be user-friendly and much more comfortable to ride, and this type of personal transportation became the rage for men, women, and children alike.

The 1890s has been called the “Bicycle Decade” because the machines became very popular throughout the United States; Monroe County citizens were certainly not excluded from the excitement surrounding these contraptions.

A 1983 advertisement Columbia Bicycles that were sold through J.C. LaBar’s store.

The first local mention of the bicycle in Monroe County occurred in the September 4, 1890 edition of the
Jeffersonian Republican newspaper. An article on the front page told how Miss Addie and Mr. Arthur Brown, children of Rev. John Brown of Tunkhannock rode their bicycles all the way down the mountain into Stroudsburg. According to the article, it was the first time anyone had seen a female riding these “vehicles.” The brief article continues on to explain that Miss Addie was an expert as “the ease and grace with which she glided up Main street the day of their arrival, elicited the admiration of many beholders.”

Not simply for recreational use, bicycles quickly became an important means of transportation. Bicycles liberated the every day person, offering personal independence as a way to travel over longer distances faster than walking would allow. Indeed, folks were no longer tied to the schedules of trains or stagecoaches, and individuals within a family didn’t have to rely on taking a turn to use the family horse and wagon. The bicycle offered everyone a relatively inexpensive travel alternative, and it provided (as it still does) a sense of freedom for the rider.

Owning a bicycle quickly became a mark of social status for both men and women. Many spouses gave bicycles to each other as birthday and holiday gifts. Bicycles for women riders differed from those for male riders. The “woman’s bicycle” allowed women to ride while maintaining their sense of modesty — as the bicycle could accommodate skirts. Accounts often appeared in the local newspaper which told of “new lady riders” there were or how many new “matrons” were “learning to ride.” Susan B. Anthony was quoted as saying, “The bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world.”

Local doctors, lawyers, and businessmen all owned bicycles. Professor George Bible, the principal of the Normal School (now East Stroudsburg University) purchased bicycles for his wife and himself so they could, “travel around the seven-county Normal School service area in the summertime.” Both the Stroudsburg Presbyterian and the Stroudsburg Methodist churches presented bicycles to their respective ministers that they might be able to visit the parishioners and better serve their congregations.

Bicycle races were the highlight of the Monroe County Fair. During the fair, races were held, and prizes were awarded to the winners of the 5-mile race, the 1-mile race, the half-mile race, and the 100-yard dash. Bicycles had also become an important part of local parades. The annual Memorial Day parade boasted the participation of 112 bicyclists; prizes were awarded for “original cycle decorations and imaginative cyclist characterization dress.”

In 1893, the Stroudsburg Bicycle Club was formed with eleven members. Dr. Clarence M. Brownell, a local physician, served as the club’s first president/captain. Theodore Kulp was the lieutenant, and Robert Brown served as the treasurer and secretary. The Club had uniforms made by J. H. Bensinger, a local tailor. The uniforms featured brown and grey suits with matching caps as well as black stockings and sweaters.

An article appeared in the May 4, 1893 edition of the
Stroudsburg Times newspaper discussing the bicycling travels of Robert Bruce from New York City to Chicago. Mr. Bruce, who took a scenic rather than a direct route between the cities, stopped in Stroudsburg on his way west to Chicago. After overnighting in Stroudsburg, Mr. Bruce departed for Scranton and “was accompanied as far as Mt. Pocono by Stroudsburg’s representative wheelman, Dr. Brownell.”

The League of American Wheelmen (LAW) was also formed during this time. With a yearly membership fee of one dollar, this bicycle club offered benefits for members, including discounted rates at hotels and stronger lobbying for road improvements. By April 1896, 76 women were members of LAW, and by 1897, there were an estimated 600+ bicycles in Stroudsburg and East Stroudsburg.

With so many bicycles on the road, safely became a big concern. Men, women, and children of every skill level were riding bicycles, and many accidents occurred. Not only was the rider’s safety an issue, but so too was the safety of others.

Because licenses were not needed to operate bicycles and there was no type of inspection needed to own or operate a bicycle, borough officials enacted laws to protect the public. In June 1896, the East Stroudsburg Borough Council passed an ordinance which forbade riding bicycles at night without a lantern. The Stroudsburg Borough Council went further and regulated “the speed of bicycles and compelling riders to sound alarm bells and carry lighted lamps on the streets of Stroudsburg.”

Numerous fines were collected from those who disobeyed the local ordinances. A Washington Hotel porter in East Stroudsburg was fined $5 for riding his bicycle on the pavement, and Fred Spring was arrested for riding his bicycle after dark without the proper lighting device. Spring paid a $5 fine and was released. On May 24, 1895, an accident occurred on Lower Main Street in Stroudsburg. A team of horses pulling a wagon dashed and ran into another team of horses and a light post. Observers of the accident blamed a cyclist who had startled and panicked the horses, causing them to bolt.

The members of the YMCA Bicycle Club formed a committee to create rules for bicyclists, intending to protect cyclists, pedestrians, and others. The Committee recommended that all cyclists ride on the right-hand side of the road, and it developed simple hand signals for cyclists to use when turning. The Committee also offered advice such as keeping shoelaces tied while riding and keeping hands on handlebars, citing the precariousness of “show[ing] off with no hands.”

From their early days as boneshakers to the road bikes, BMXs, and ATBs of today, bicycles have offered riders a compelling sense of freedom and enjoyment. They also provide quality exercise and a relatively speedy and inexpensive means of getting around town. So … put on your helmet, tie your shoelaces, and enjoy a form of transportation that is over a hundred years in the making.