The first bicycle craze happened in the 1860s, when 'boneshakers' briefly gained popularity, though their harsh ride quality drove them out of fashion quickly, to be replaced by the equally uncomfortable 'penny farthing', or 'regular' which had an equally short life in the limelight. When the 'safety bicycle' (what would become the modern, diamond frame bicycle standard) was invented, it revolutionized individual transport.
We could easily go off topic talking about the ways that the safety bicycle changed the world (lightweight steel tubing, pneumatic tires, gearing systems) and paved the way for automobiles (literally), but today we're discussing the scorcher fad that came with the bicycle boom of the 1890s.
Bicycling had traditionally been the realm of spry young men, mostly due to the extremely difficult riding conditions of the boneshakers and penny-farthings, but when the safety bicycle came to the world many of those conditions disappeared or were lessened considerably. So not only did a wide new range of people take up cycling for fun and commuting, but they could do so at greater speeds than ever thanks to the chain gearing and the bicycle's new, low center of gravity (which made 'taking a header' practically a non-concern). Young men began challenging themselves to reach ever greater speeds.
|Cycling was considered a very feminist activity, giving freedom to women everywhere. Though even most feminists advised against wearing men's clothing.|
"The number of "hoodlums" scorching along... with heads down, with no regard to the safety of persons crossing, is rapidly increasing"There were cries for police intervention, and arguments that horses would never be allowed to travel so quickly through a crowd.
All the additional attention from the police gave some hope that scorching might soon be eradicated, one New York Times columnist wrote in June, 1896 (under the headline Scorchers WILL Be Suppressed):
"Scorchers are the most dreaded of all evils which terrify the wheeling element. But decided steps have been taken to abate the nuisance, and the consequence will be that shortly the bow-backed fiends will be run to earth and suppressed entirely."
Many incidences of pedestrians being injured in collisions with cyclists were reported in the last years of the 19th century. In October of 1900 a 55 year old pedestrian died following a collision with a 16 year old scorcher named Harry Morton, who was said to be charged with manslaughter. What became of Morton was not discovered by the time of this writing.
By the late 1890s, the public had become convinced that not only was scorching dangerous and irresponsible, but that it posed a serious health risk to the riders themselves. The “bicycle heart” was said to come from fast riding, which, according to an army recruiting doctor, had a "tendency to enlarge the heart and thus interfere with its proper action.” The French Army also rejected potential recruits for fast bicycle riding, saying that riders had heart trouble. In July of 1899 the New York Times reported that a fast ride had killed a scorcher, the scorcher also happened to be 64 years old and suffered of heart disease.
The second bicycle boom is considered to have ended by 1903, and the golden age of the scorcher along with it. No single event caused the end of the scorching fad, but the rise in automobile use along with social pressure probably contributed. In The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Bicycle Police Ross Petty claims that police motorcycles were being used as early as 1908, and that “closed cars became more popular not only for patrol work, but for pursuing criminals who frequently attempted to escape in cars that could travel at increasingly faster speeds.” So most of the young men and women likely either grew out of the scorching practice or graduated to internal combustion speeding. Bicycles have seen at least two major revivals since then, and more than likely the scorcher has been encountered in each one.
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