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Sing a Song of Cycles

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The following is a guest post by Music Archivist Janet McKinney and Music Reference Specialist Lisa Shiota.

Music Archivist Janet McKinney and Music Reference Specialist Lisa Shiota curating a display of bicycle-related materials in the Music Division's collections in 2014.
Music Archivist Janet McKinney and Music Reference Specialist Lisa Shiota curating a display of bicycle-related materials in the Music Division’s collections in 2014.

May is National Bike Month, a time to showcase the many benefits of cycling. Today in DC it is also Bike to Work Day, where thousands of people in the metropolitan area hop on their bikes for the commute to work. We thought this would be the perfect opportunity to highlight some of the Music Division’s contributions to a special display held in the Library last August, “Pedaling Through History: A Look at Cycling Collections Across the Library of Congress.” The display included magazines, comic books, maps and atlases, film, advertisements, and much more. Clad in our finest cycling-themed attire, we spoke with a multitude of velocipede enthusiasts about the variety of related materials in our collections.

A flute collection may seem an unlikely place to find anything concerning cycling, but the Dayton C. Miller Collection is actually home to two such items: a whistle depicting a Staffordshire pottery boy on a white velocipede, and a photograph ca. 1883 of 17-year old Dayton C. Miller with his penny-farthing. The Aaron Copland Collection is also home to a photograph showing him on a bicycle ride along with harpist Djina Ostrowska; and here is Curd Jurgens and Danny Kaye riding a tandem bike in Me and the Colonel.

Of course, the Music Division holds a plethora of bike-related published music, and this constituted the bulk of our display. Sheet music consistently stands as an excellent vehicle to reveal the landscape of life, reflecting on current events and showing what was popular at the time. This holds true for sheet music about bicycles and cycling, with much of this music published at the height of the bicycle craze in the 1890s. Some of the sheet music was published as just one selection from a musical theater show, such as “Love’s Lane,” highlighted in an earlier blog post. In another case, cycling is showcased as the vital component of an entire opera, as with Les Bicyclistes en Voyage.

Several pieces of sheet music that we featured at the exhibit were actually part of a grand marketing scheme to advertise various brands of bicycles. “My Wheel Napoleon” advertised the Napoleon bicycle, made by the Jenkins Cycle Company. The “Star Bicycle Galop” was dedicated to H.B. Smith of the H.B. Smith Machine Company, makers of the American Star Bicycle.

"The Bicycle Girl" by F.W. Meacham and Avery Oddfellow (call number M1622.M). Music Division, Library of Congress.
“The Bicycle Girl” by F.W. Meacham and Avery Oddfellow (call number M1622.M).

Sheet music for “The Bicycle Girl” depicts a serious looking woman on a Liberty Bicycle, proudly wearing a pin of the Liberty Bell. The piece is respectfully dedicated to Alex Schwalbach, who at the time was manager of the Myers-Wilson Company’s salesroom in Brooklyn, which sold Liberty bikes. The lyrics by Avery Oddfellow (get it?), describe how the bicycle girl has stolen “our collars and caps,” …”our small clothes and even our tights, oh the frights.” The chorus:

Oh, the bicycle girl, oh the bicycle girl,

She’s bound, neck or nothing, to go;

For she’s fast (on the wheel) and in matters of dress,

She isn’t by any means slow,

Oh! no, she isn’t by any means slow!

It seems as though the Myers-Wilson Company was attempting to market their women’s Liberty bicycle by calling attention to controversial fashion reform, albeit in a very back-handed manner.

Amongst the sheet music we examined were a significant number of covers that depict women, or directly refer to women in the title. Along with “The Bicycle Girl” there is “The Bloomer March,” dedicated to the cycling women of America. This piece also, if just in name and cover art draws attention to the changes brought about in fashion to facilitate the dexterity and comfort needed for women cyclists. The cover art for “Velocipede Galop” depicts a woman speeding ahead of a man who has fallen off of his bicycle, leaving him in the dust while onlookers cheer. Though this piece of music was published nearly 150 years ago, the sentiment of pride in seeing an empowered woman cyclist still resonates true and strong today. According to the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), fewer than 26% of bicyclists in the DC area are women. WABA runs a Women and Bicycles program to educate and inspire women to bike and actively participate in the advocacy for urban cycling infrastructure. The “new woman” and the bloomer club live on.

Regardless of gender, we hope you hop on a bike, take a ride, and enjoy the beautiful spring weather during National Bike Month–perhaps while humming “Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two)” as you go. It is one of seven songs highlighted in a medley of “Songs of the Past,” recorded on the Victor label in 1915 and available for listening on the National Jukebox. Listen to the whole medley, or skip ahead to 2:43 for “Daisy Bell,” and you will certainly “look sweet upon the seat.”



  1. Makes me want to get on a bike a head to the Library of Congress to see all this great material in person!

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