Chicago’s Long Love Affair with Bikes

Mead Bicycle Company Catalog, 1911. Source: Chicago Public Library, Special Collections, Trade Catalog Collection
Mead Bicycle Company Catalog, 1911. Source: Chicago Public Library, Special Collections, Trade Catalog Collection

As the weather finally warms up, many Chicagoans are tuning up their bikes for the season. While there's much talk of biking in the Windy City in recent years, Chicago has always been a biking city. The cycling craze of the late 1800s saw a rapid evolution from heavy bikes that were difficult to ride, to bikes with one tall front wheel that made it hard for women to mount in their skirts and corsets, to bikes that looked much like what we have today that were lighter, cheaper and more accessible.

You can learn about this history by exploring CPL's Special Collections. To see not only how bikes were marketed and sold in Chicago, but in some cases, how they were manufactured and built, take a look at our Trade Catalog Collection.

You might not think of Chicago theater when you think of bicycles, but our Chicago Theater Collection-Historic Programs Digital Collection tells otherwise. Not only did bike companies advertise in the playbills, but theaters also hosted bicycling performers, such as this 1881 show at the Academy of Music featuring Stirk's Troupe of Male and Female Marvelous Bicycle Equestrians.

The Neighborhood History Research Collection also provides a window into Chicago's cycling history. An 1897 article in the East Garfield Park Community Collection, which originally appeared in Cement & Engineering News, discusses the construction of the cycling race track in Garfield Park. The Beverly-Morgan Park Collection includes an ordinance issued by the Village of Morgan Park in 1899 that, among other regulations of bicycle usage, prohibited riders from going downhill with their feet off the pedals.

An oral history in the Bethel New Life Records describes an early bike rental service, long before Divvy bike stations began appearing all over town. The Hudson family owned three rental stations on the West Side around 1940. You can also see biking photos from the Ravenswood-Lake View Community Collection.

Finally, the Chicago Park District Records: Photographs reveal how people from all over the city have enjoyed bicycling for over a hundred years. From formal races, programs and activities to people informally cycling in the parks, these photographs show Chicago at play.

Are you itching to jump on your bike? Check the City of Chicago's bicycling website for information on where and how to ride. Or check out a book from CPL, such as Where to Bike. Happy riding!

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