“Our Best Bet is the Boy”: A Cultural History of Bicycle Marketing and Consumption in the United States, 1880-1960

Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. Tracy Campbell


This dissertation will focus on how the bicycle industry dealt with a period of dwindling popularity for their product how the bicycle found redemption—as a child’s toy. The central question that will serve as the driving force of this dissertation is: Why did Americans lose interest in cycling and what can this tell us about American culture and societal ideals? By examining industry practices and American consumption of the bicycle, this dissertation will seek to understand this question by mapping changes in American culture that occurred from the 1880s-1960. It examines why Americans lost interest in cycling and what this tells us about American culture and American’s self-perceptions, as individuals and as a nation. It interrogates how Americans used the bicycle to demonstrate ideals of race, class, age, and gender and how the bicycle’s role as a status symbol changed over time. This study also considers how larger historic changes, such as urbanization, suburbanization, changes in the economy, war, and political decisions regarding the built environment affected cycling. Shifts in social and cultural norms instigated changes in the symbolic nature of the bicycle and the public’s use of it to attain and affirm socially constructed ideals. Attempts to manage the image of the bicycle in reaction to cultural changes—as well as the societal contestations and negotiations arising in response to those attempts, what they teach us, and how those lessons can be applied in a contemporary setting—drive this dissertation. This examination of cycling in the U.S. will argue that the manner in which the bicycle was marketed and designed as well as the manner in which it was consumed both relate directly to alterations in American culture. As bicycle production increased and prices fell the bicycle lost the interest of its target market—white middle-class males—and manufacturers began a series of attempts at redefining the bicycle and broadening its market. By arguing that the bicycle industry itself was culpable in the bicycle’s loss of status, this dissertation will go beyond overly simplistic arguments that fail to look beyond automobiles.

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