‘What poster?’ asked Harris.
‘The poster advertising this particular brand of cycle,’ explained George. ‘I was looking at one on a hoarding in Sloane Street only a day or two before we started. A man was riding this make of machine, a man with a banner in his hand: he wasn’t doing any work, that was clear as daylight; he was just sitting on the thing and drinking in the air. The cycle was going of its own accord, and going well. This thing of yours leaves all the work to me. It is a lazy brute of a machine; if you don’t shove, it simply does nothing. I should complain about it, if I were you.'
The above advert for Cycles Clement may not be the specific one Jerome K. Jerome had in mind when he wrote the above conversation between George, Harris, and the narrator of Three Men on the Bummel, but it neatly encapsulates George’s sentiments. A young man, nattily dressed, effortlessly floats down the road while holding aloft a banner in one hand, his cap in the other. As Jerome pointed out, “the object of the artist is to convince the hesitating neophyte that the sport of bicycling consists in sitting on a luxurious saddle, and being moved rapidly in the direction you wish to go by unseen heavenly powers.”
Newspaper adverts gave manufacturers many opportunities to advertise their products but such adverts were restricted in their scope due to the limitations of print news and the cost of advertising space. In the early days of the bicycle, adverts were typically little more than text providing the essential information that the buyer needed to know. Later adverts might also include a picture, more often than not a drawing rather than a photograph.
The earlier invention of printing techniques such as lithography had allowed for relatively cheap mass production of printed materials leading to the rapid development of the use of posters in commercial advertising. Chromolithography further allowed for the use of vibrant colours and cycle manufacturers were quick to take advantage of the medium. Like many advertisers before and since the realisation that sex sells influenced the tone of many of the adverts which often depicted women in varying states of déshabille.
As Jerome put it, “Her costume for cycling in hot weather is ideal. Old-fashioned ladies might refuse her lunch, it is true; and a narrow-minded police force might desire to secure her, and wrap her in a rug preliminary to summoning her.” Titivation was all well and good for some demographics but advertisers knew that different approaches were needed for different markets. Adverts depicting more sensibly clothed women spoke of the ease of travel and the freedom the bicycle gave.
Other adverts focused on, “how much superior for purposes of flirtation is the modern bicycle to the old-fashioned parlour or the played out garden gate,” with their depictions of couples enjoying a day out in the countryside. Common to such adverts was the portrayal of cycling as an easy, graceful activity that took place in beautiful surroundings and glorious weather.
Some romantic engagements as depicted in cycle advertisements were less innocent than the idyllic scenes above. An advert for Cycles Gladiator combined both sex and freedom. Here we see a young couple speeding away from the vain pursuit of … who? Perhaps he’s the daughter’s angry father, the cuckolded husband, or perhaps an officer who’s caught one of his men in flagrante with the Colonel’s daughter? Whomever he is, it is the bicycle that has given the laughing lovers the freedom to find a spot in the countryside for their tryst and the freedom to escape their pursuer.
Adverts depicting men only also emphasised the ease of cycling, as in this advert for Aumon bicycles which suggests that the rider has to hold the machine back rather than propel it forward himself.
Other adverts suggested the advantages of their brand over others, the implication being that riding a Peugeot, a Raleigh, a Gladiator, or in this case a bicycle from the manufacturers Rapid-Triumph, would give an immense advantage over riders on other brands.
Or this French advert in which crowds of cyclists prostrate themselves in worship to the superior Cleveland Cycles bike ridden by the Native American, their own bikes discarded in the background.
Such adverts addressed the leisure market, emphasizing the advantage of the bicycle as a superior mode of transport that offered freedom and adventure and allowed the owner to escape into an idealized countryside. Like many adverts the promises they made were often greater than the reality of the product they promoted. Perhaps my favourite is this by the American artist Frederick Winthrop Ramsdell. Surviving copies of the original poster are few and far between, and on the rare occasion they enter the market can sell for thousands of pounds. It reminds me of the idealized concept of beauty found in the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites. Like many adverts it is the woman that is central to the image rather than the bicycle, which we only glimpse surrounded by her flowing dress and auburn hair, and the field of flowers in the foreground. It evokes an idyllic picture of the joy of cycling but also speaks of the emancipation that the invention of the bicycle gave to women.
 Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel (London: Penguin, 1994), 143. First published 1900.
 Ibid., 144.
by Mike Dash
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