CYCLING HUMOUR: MEMBERS of the FROLIC CLUB
Much of the humour of the Victorian age is not necessarily what we might laugh at today. Magazine humour was particularly ‘dry’ and often satirised topics of the day that we’d have little reason to understand now, though comic subjects can provide insights into relevant issues of the time. For example, the first picture from 1897 shows tramps riding expensive bicycles and tricycles, as a suggestion of what might happen if bicycle prices continued to fall.
The result of cycling’s first boom years was over-production; unsold bicycles, including cheap machines of poor quality, forced down prices. (Compare the car industry today, constantly dependent on sales of new cars that we really don’t need). Over-valued market flotations of cycle companies also affected the industry as sales declined. Many companies went bust, the lucrative ones swallowed up by competitors, very many more disappearing into obscurity.
The ‘saviours’ of the cycle industry were the motorcycle and car: within five years or so, the majority of larger cycle manufacturers were re-tooling to make fabulous new forms of transportation and their related components. It’s amazing to consider how fast cars established themselves: from few on the road at the turn of the century to total dependency on cars, lorries, trams and buses by the end of the decade. But it’s less surprising when you consider our large cycle manufacturing industry that funded new inventions, and had already established the necessary mass-production techniques, distribution networks, sales outlets, export markets and back-up sales services, as well as forcing the improvements of roads.
PUNCH, OR THE LONDON CHARIVARI
‘Charivari’ was part of ancient carnival tradition, which essentially parodied the King: roles were reversed, society was turned inside out and a clown could become king for a day. In strictly conservative societies only theatre was traditionally allowed to get away with such mockery. Bear in mind that as recently as 1600, the scientist Bruno was burnt at the stake as a heretic for declaring that the earth was not flat.
Punch was founded in 1841 and quickly gained popularity: ‘To judge from the number of references to it in the private letters and memoirs of the 1840s…Punch had become a household word within a year or two of its founding, beginning in the middle class and soon reaching the pinnacle of society, royalty itself.’ *
Being a bicycle that was eminently usable, but also somewhat dangerous, the velocipede soon captured the public imagination. The weekly satirical magazine The Ferret lost no time in adding to comments of the day. Its cover of March 22nd, 1870, below, illustrates women riding velocipedes in side-saddle position with extremely risque attire.
The bicycle jousting picture, below, from The Illustrated London News of 1883, is well-known.
MEMBERS OF THE FROLIC CLUB
Now that cycling has come into such common use
There isn’t a creature, not even a goose
Who walks about now. E’en the postman you’ll find,
Rides off on his rounds, parcels strapped behind.
And good Mrs. Sheep, as she coasts down a hill
By the side of a friend, without ever a spill,
By Greenfern, the tailer, so suitably dressed,
Remarks ‘Times are changed, but they’re changed for the best!’
– Members of the Frolic Club, Pinafore Series No 17, Dean & Son Ltd, London, c1898
DEAN & SON, PUBLISHER
160 Fleet St, London
Dean & Son, founded prior to 1800, was an innovative publisher and the first to produce movable books – what we now call ‘pop-up’ books – on a large scale, from the mid-nineteenth century. This company was devoted exclusively to making and selling novelty (toy) books: at their studios in London teams of artists worked to design and craft all kinds of new and complex movable books. One of their inventions, in the 1860s, was described as ‘living pictures’ as a mechanism within the book was used to animate the book by pulling a tab. Their book The Royal Punch & Judy was played before Queen Victoria at Windsor castle and Crystal Palace.
Dean & Son history and pictures with thanks to – http://www.library.unt.edu/rarebooks/exhibits/popup2/dean.htm
1914 PUNCH MAGAZINE
STRANGE BUT TRUE!
STRANGE but TRUE was a series of fifty cartoon adverts placed by Currys Ltd in the cycling press. In contrast to Victorian humour, these are probably easier on our modern sensibilities. To keep this museum in a reasonable chronological order, I’ve added their dedicated page toward the end of this website.
* Quoting historian Richard Altick – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punch_(magazine)