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Two Hundred Years of Bicycles talk, July 20

Velocipede bicycle, vintage engraved illustration. Dictionary of words and things - Larive and Fleury - 1895.

headshot of Thomas Burr

Thomas Burr

Many have fond memories of learning to ride a bike when they were young, the feeling of triumph is a classic rite of passage for children around the world.

Since its beginnings in the early 1800s, bicycles have experienced their fair share of popularity—and criticism. In the early days of cycling, many people didn’t like the bicycles, and even went as far as passing laws to restrict their use. “Cyclists formed clubs and national associations to fight these laws,” said Illinois State University’s Associate Professor of Sociology Thomas Burr, who has written about the economics and attitudes toward bicycles for journals such as the American Journal of Economics and Sociology. “This [attitude] changed over time, so that by the mid-1890s bicycles were very popular among the rich.”

Burr studies the ways bikes have moved through the social ladder—from rejected, to tools of the rich, to tools for the poor, and into the world of being considered a kid’s toy. He will present the talk Two Hundred Years of Bicycles at 10:45 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 20, at the David Davis Mansion. This talk is part of a full-day event titled Wheels Through Time: A Historic Bike Show taking place at the mansion.

The history of bicycles reflects the ways in which societies have evolved over time. “Personal freedom is an obvious [reason for people to love cycling],” said Burr, who noted that in the 1890s young women found independence on the seat of a bicycle. “Parents and moralists worried that bicycles allowed young women to go out unchaperoned, but many of the young women themselves loved their new freedom.” That feeling of freedom is a repeated theme for the popularity of cycling. Burr has been cycling for almost as long as he can remember. His interest in this subject began in his childhood when he first fell in love with cycling. His love for cycling didn’t stop there, as he began going on long, multi-day camping trips, known as touring, and even competed in bicycle races. While studying for his Ph.D. in economic sociology at the University of California, Davis, Burr needed a topic for a case study. His love affair with cycling, along with the city of Davis being one of the best towns for cycling in the United States, gave him the idea of doing a comparative case study on the consumer markets for bicycles in France and the U.S.

Burr hopes to continue his research on bicycles, delving deeper into the research he conducted during his time at UC Davis, specifically looking at the years 1865-1914, bringing together both the articles he has published in the past with his new research into a book on the subject.

“My favorite part of my research is the post-1900 era,” said Burr. “There is a lot of bicycle history covering the 1880s and 1890s, but not much after that until the 1970s. It’s fascinating, but it’s not enough.”

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