Pedaling Through Memory: A Library of Congress Exhibit and a Reminder to Slow Down
This issue of Perspectives includes several articles describing terrain familiar to the historian—struggles over memory. Shatha Almutawa reports on a State Department social media counterterrorism program that attempts to fix the minds of its audience on a recent memory of Muslim prosperity and tolerance, while extremists imagine a very different golden age. Michael Bustamante discusses the ongoing framing and reframing of the Bay of Pigs invasion against the backdrop of the stubborn refusal of the CIA to release a draft history of the event. George Derek Musgrove reports on a panel that attempted to simplify Nixon’s relationship with the District of Columbia, even as historians strive to complicate it.
So memory was on my mind when I slipped out of the AHA offices and visited the Library of Congress’s Pedaling through History exhibition, a one-day event that displayed items related to cycling from various divisions in the library—prints and photographs; science, technology, and business; motion picture, broadcasting, and recorded sound; and so on. The very scope of the exhibit and the fact that so many library divisions had something interesting to contribute spoke to the way cycling had once been deeply infused in daily life. Displays featured cycling periodicals, music, film, prints, and archival materials, such as letters and artifacts from the Wright brothers’ bicycle shop. Most of the materials were from well before the bicycle gave way to the automobile. A featured article from the New-York Tribune describes a bicycle and auto show at Madison Square Garden in 1900: “The same old enthusiasm was in the air, and the pessimists who have predicted the partial collapse of the bicycle boom ‘took to the woods.’” The article mentions the autos in passing, as a novel curiosity, but the bicycles were “really things of beauty.”
Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division
Poster from 1896 advertising Stearns Bicycles by Edward Penfield (1866–1925).
This was an occasion for me to reflect not on how much things have changed, but rather on how much we have forgotten. I spend far more time on my bike than I do in my car; it’s convenient to not have to search for parking or spend time in traffic, and while I feel drained when I get out of a car, I feel energized when I get off a bike. But this personal preference and the routines I’ve built around it all exist at a time of rising tensions between motorists and cyclists (labels that I think have arisen because of that tension rather than due to any kind of self-sustaining identity). In addition to regular verbal assaults on the street, DC cyclists have been subjected to a well-respected Washington Post columnist calling them “terrorists” and saying that some drivers might consider it worthwhile to pay the fine for the satisfaction of striking a cyclist with their car. DC has rapidly become one of the most bike-friendly cities in the nation, but every bike lane that is perceived to interfere with automobile traffic is hotly contested, and the ire lands on those who ride, not on the city departments making the decisions.
The Library of Congress event was a reminder of how much of this hostility (and some of the defensiveness of cyclists) is due to short historical memory. While it is true that most of the materials dated back to before the 1920s, there was still a remarkable enthusiasm for the two-wheelers late into the century, perhaps best illustrated by the short film from Schwinn, The Magic of the Bicycle (1965), which shows how much can be done without a car, from grocery shopping to business deliveries. Bicycles were practical, but also empowering: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling,” reads a quote from Susan B. Anthony displayed at the event, “I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”
At some point, these ideas about the bicycle being part of daily life, being a thing of beauty, and being emancipatory passed out of collective memory, and the bike became associated almost exclusively with sport and recreation. I tend to think that’s why drivers become so easily enraged when I delay their arrival at the next stoplight by 30 seconds or so. They see someone using “their” roads for fun, when in fact I’m just like them—trying to get somewhere.
I believe these tensions are symptomatic of a broad cultural shift and will dissipate. I also believe that the rediscovery of cycling’s past will be key. The room at the library exhibit was packed, and many attendees had helmets in hand or strapped to their backpacks. Listening in on conversations, I heard visitors asking library staff about historical parallels and shifting attitudes.
The articles in these pages that discuss memory deal with weighty issues. My afternoon foray into cycling history and memory, and this digression which followed, seem insignificant by comparison, but they do point to the broad applicability of history and memory, and how forgetting a history can affect contemporary life all the way down to the level of interactions on the street.
Allen Mikaelian is the editor of Perspectives on History.
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