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Researching Bicycling History through Newspapers
Bulletin #: 30
One of the great sources of information about bicycling in its golden age are the pages of American newspapers published in that era. The last quarter of the Nineteenth Century was a period when almost every modest village had a weekly newspaper and each major urban center had a number of competing dailies. A large number of the major newspapers of the era and many of the smaller newspapers have been preserved on microfilm. A few libraries in almost every state own microfilm copies of some Nineteenth Century newspapers and most libraries can determine where microfilm copies of specific newspapers are held and make arrangements to borrow reels for their patrons. Most libraries have good microfilm readers that allow users to adjust the magnification and make copies of material for a charge.
Even if you donít plan to conduct a formal research project and write a paper, reading about the bicycle activities described in several monthsí issues of 1890s newspapers will give a wonderful feel for that age when bikehood was in flower. Small local and regional newspapers are often on microfilm but they are less likely to be indexed. Begin by scanning issues of a specific year of these newspapers and you will soon determine what coverage, if any, was given to bicycling and approximately where it was normally located in that publication. Good news for researchers is the fact that some microfilmed newspapers such as The New York Times, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, The New York Daily Tribune, and The (London) Times have been indexed. This makes it possible to turn to a year such as 1895 in the index and find, for example under the topic bicycle, a list of articles that appeared during the year. Each listing includes the month, day, page, and column number, so that the item can be readily located on the microfilm.
While indexes are very helpful, they are not infallible. Newspapers often contain some bicycle items that are not indexed. Occasionally the location listed for an indexed article is incorrect. Normally, however, it is a case of only having the wrong column or being off by a page or two. Bicycle advertisements are not indexed, but since most ads include illustrations, they can be found by viewing the paperís advertising sections.
A newspaper can be a good place to start researching since it gives one account of an event. A competent researcher should, however, attempt to go beyond a single account of any event. Additional newspapers or sources may provide new information or even cast doubt on something reported elsewhere. The value of a multiñsource approach was demonstrated to me when I gathered twelve accounts of Mile-a-Minute Murphyís famous June 30, 1899, ride behind a train. Almost every account added something not found in the other reports, and in some cases inconsistencies emerged.
Most competent public libraries should be able to borrow microfilm reels of The New York Times or The New York Daily Tribune. Microfilm of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle is more difficult to obtain. The New York State Library in Albany may be the best source for borrowing the Eagle. You may need to work in stages when reviewing any of these newspapers because one monthís editions of an 1890s newspaper may constitute a reel of microfilm and some libraries will only lend a few reels at one time. College and university libraries in your area may also be useful even if you are not a student or graduate of the institution. Many academic libraries will allow the public to use material in the library. Some academic libraries have a ìfriends of the libraryî type of organization that you can join. Membership in the organization will often permit full use of the libraryís materials and services.
Major Indexed Newspapers and Sample Listings
The New York Times. The paper began publication under this title in the 1850s as a four page afternoon daily selling for one cent a copy. After two decades of growth, the paper began to decline because of competition from Pulitzerís World and other illustrated publications. In 1896 the Times was restored to health by the Ochs family who made it a quality morning newspaper that obtained a circulation of 75,000 by the late 1890s. The Times has subsequently been indexed from its beginning to present and is widely available on microfilm. Editorials on biking and other subjects are indexed separately from regular articles. In the peak years of the 1890s there were so many articles on bicycling that they were often indexed under subheadings such as Bicycling, Bicycle Clubs, Races, and Bicyclers.
While many of the bicycle articles in the paper deal with the metropolitan area, there is also coverage of regional, national, and international news on bicycling. There are, for example, articles on Stevensí world tour, reports of major rides in this country, and news of LAW meetings and activities. Just reading the index is like looking at the menu in a great restaurant; you want to sample it all! Even the number of articles in respective years is interesting, for it gives a sense of the growth and decline in the popularity of the bicycle.
The following short excerpt from the index of bicycle articles in The New York Times for 1894 gives a flavor of the contents. You will first find the title of each article then the month and date it appeared, and the page and column number on which the article begins.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1841ñ1955, was an important afternoon newspaper that gave careful attention to sporting news and rejoiced in the accomplishments of its baseball team, yachtsmen, boxers, bowlers, horsemen, and bicyclists. The city had over fifty wheel clubs in the midñ1890s. Some of these organizations such as the Kings County Wheelmen had more than 200 members and elaborate clubhouses. Other clubs such as the Whirling Dervishes didnít have a constitution or byñlaws, much less a clubhouse. Brooklyn cycling highlights of the 1890s included the intensive use of its seventyñfive acre Prospect Park, the construction of a bicycle path from the Park to Coney Island, the addition of a return path to handle crowds of riders, massive bicycle parades sponsored by the Good Roads Association, first class racing at the Manhattan Beach track, annual road races, century runs on Long Island, and club social events.
The following is a short excerpt from the index of bicycle articles in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle of 1896.
The New York Daily Tribune. The Tribune was one of Americaís most influential newspapers in the 19th century. It was begun as a penny paper by Horace Greely in 1841. The paper showed enterprise in gathering news and obtaining contributions from famous people. The publication was a reflection of its famous editor who showed toleration for new ideas and supported many types of social reform. While some thought the paper would perish with the death of Greely, the Tribune found new life in 1873 under Whitelaw Reid and his family. The paper had a circulation of 75,000 by 1892 and it was the first modern newspaper to publish an annual index, beginning in 1876. The Tribune continued into the 20th century and was merged with the Herald in 1924.
The following is a short excerpt from the index of bicycle articles in The New York Daily Tribune of 1898.
More information on these and other newspapers can be found in Frank Luther Mottís American Journalism: A History of Newspapers in the United States Through 250 Years ñ 1690 to 1940. New York: Macmillan, 1941.
Note: A researcher who desires copies of indexes for The New York Times - 1875 to 1904, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle - 1892 to 1901, and The New York Daily Tribune - 1880 to 1904, contact the Publications Chair.