To 21st-century eyes the bicycle seems unremarkable. But when modern-style “safety” bikes – with pedals, brakes and rubber tyres – first appeared in the 1890s, they were seen as agents of radical social change.
Beloved of socialists and suffragettes, bicycles became associated with emancipation and progress. Female cyclists abandoned impractical Victorian clothing for trousers or bloomers. “The bicycle is indeed the great leveller,” reported the Century magazine in 1894. “It puts the poor man on a level with the rich, enabling him to ‘sing the song of the open road’ as freely as the millionaire.”
That was overdoing it. But bikes had an immediate social impact in one area: dating. Cyclists could now travel beyond their own communities, greatly increasing the number of potential marriage partners.
They allowed the young to escape the oversight of chaperones. Tandem bicycles, immortalised in a song from 1892, “Daisy, Daisy”, let couples ride together.
Even punctures provided romantic opportunities. Women were expected to rely on male gallantry for repairs: “There are many punctures done on purpose, which necessitates a tête-à-tête walk home.”
As bikes got cheaper, the craze came to an end, to the relief of scandalised Victorians who worried that cycling made women infertile, caused disease and loosened their morals.
In recent years another technology has expanded people’s social circles and dramatically broadened their romantic opportunities: online dating. Like bicycles, apps and websites bring together people who might otherwise not have met, but on a far larger scale. In America more than a third of marriages now start with a digital match-up. Online dating is fast catching up with “friend of a friend” introductions as the most popular way to meet people of the opposite sex. Among same-sex relationships, 70% now start online.
Evidence suggests that marriages in America between people who meet online are likely to be happier and last longer. Online dating also seems to be boosting interracial marriages by overcoming social divisions. Dating apps have completed what the bicycle began. Both technologies are, you might say, revolutionary.•