Bicycles | Flagler Museum

Victoria Safety, 1891 Overman Wheel Company, Chicopee, Massachusetts The Victoria bicycle was renowned for its exquisite and elegant design. In 1895, the Victoria was considered a luxury item with a price tag of $100.00.


We live in a time where traditional bicycles have essentially reached the zenith of design development. You might assume that with more than a century of progressive iterations, we’ve also arrived at the pinnacle of aesthetic beauty. However after touring Bicycles: Technology That Changed The World, the fall 2023 exhibition at the Flagler Museum, vintage bikes may have the edge on elegance.

The exhibition charts the development of the bicycle in the late 19th century from veclocipede to high wheelers to chain driven safety bicycles. It might be expected to see a fair bit of ‘rustic engineering’ from bikes of this era. That’s far from the case. There’s beautiful lines and delicate use of tubing from the earliest frames in the 1860s to the more modern looking bikes of the turn of the century. What struck me was the graceful flow many of the bikes have. Many also look very delicate. A couple of the high wheel bikes use frame rods not much larger in diameter than a pencil. It was refreshing to see the artistry of bicycle design explored here. Today the industry is much more driven by performance, and efficiency and contemporary bikes look mostly the same.

The majority of the bicycles on display were from Florida-based collector Keith Pariani. In 1984, Pariani and eight other cyclists completed a coast to coast ride across the US on high wheel bicycles. The journey from San Francisco to Boston across the Rocky Mountains took 61 days on the bikes with no gears or brakes.

The exhibition was held inside the former mansion of Henry Morrison Flagler also known as Whitehall. The 75 room estate of the railway mogul is a prime example of gilded age architecture.

Full Description

The Flagler Museum’s fall exhibition, Bicycles: Technology that Changed the World, highlights the development and evolution of the bicycle and the profound impact bicycles had on American society and culture. The development of the bicycle during the Gilded Age was a turning point in history that propelled society forward, forever altering the way we navigate our world. Amid the Gilded Age’s opulence and excess, a seemingly humble invention quietly rolled onto the scene and forever changed the trajectory of society and culture. This two-wheeled wonder, with its sleek frame and a human-powered means of propulsion, quickly emerged as a symbol of freedom and mobility, transcending the boundaries of class and gender. Its rise marked a pivotal moment in history, when innovation met aspiration, and the very concept of transportation was reinvented.

The bicycle’s significance was not merely utilitarian; it was a symbol of personal liberation. Prior to the advent of bicycles, transportation was largely confined to horse-drawn carriages and travel by train. Bicycles offered a dramatically different alternative for the individual to get from point A to point B. This newfound independence resonated deeply, particularly with women, who found in the bicycle a vehicle for autonomy and emancipation. As the famous suffragette Susan B. Anthony once remarked, Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.

As bicycles became widely popular, they were woven deeply into the fabric of daily life. Societies’ fascination with speed and exploration gave rise to bicycle clubs across the country. These clubs fostered camaraderie among enthusiasts who shared the thrill of pedaling into uncharted territories. Moreover, the bicycle became a common motif in art, literature, and even fashion, embodying a spirit of technological modernity that resonated deeply with the zeitgeist of the Gilded Age. In fact, bicycles were so popular and so much a part of popular culture that merely adding the word bicycle to the name of non-bicycle products increased sales.

The popularity of bicycles was also a catalyst for profound shifts across industries. The demand for bicycles fueled innovations in manufacturing, leading to the growth of the steel industry, rubber production, and the rise of assembly-line methods that would later transform mass production. Bicycles paved the way for engineering breakthroughs, fostering a culture of invention and technological progress that laid the foundation for automobiles and airplanes and triggered an urban revolution, reshaping the very landscape of cities. Urban planners, confronted with the influx of cyclists, paving roads, introduced bicycle lanes, and advocated for the maintenance of clean streets, paving the way for the American automobile culture that would follow in the twentieth century. The advent of the bicycle was not just a fad. Its legacy has proven to be far from fleeting as it continues to influence society, culture, and the transportation industry worldwide, more than a century and a half since its invention.

Photos and Intro Text: Dave Pinter
Additional Description: Flagler Museum