New Boston Historical Society
New Boston, New Hampshire
general store
Atwood's General Store - 1899

Bicycles of New Boston

New Boston is a town of hills and valleys, and you would not think the terrain is well-suited for two-wheeled vehicles powered only by leg muscles. However our town was not immune to the bicycle craze which swept the nation in the 1880s and 1890s. Two million bikes were sold in America in 1897 alone, during the "Golden Age" of bicycles.

The first pedal-powered bicycles were called "velocipedes", a made-up word implying "swift of foot". Early models were also called "boneshakers", as they were made entirely of wood or wood and iron, with no suspension or rubber tires to cushion the ride. A famous example of a boneshaker was seen in New Boston every 4th of July for many years.

Reggie Hayes
Reggie Hayes rides his 1861 "boneshaker" down River Road in a 1964 parade.

The Historical Society has a page from Ripley's "Believe It Or Not!" which claims that the very first bicycle built in America was "owned by Reginald Hayes of New Boston, NH, who still rides it in parades." In fact, Reggie rode his velocipede in twenty consecutive 4th of July parades. He was 79 in the photo above; his bicycle was 103! Reggie believed that his boneshaker was built by James Mahoney, an ironsmith in Claremont, N.H., from drawings Mahoney made when he saw a Michaud bicycle in Europe.

Note that the pedals of the boneshaker are attached directly to the front wheel, like a child's "Big Wheel" tricycle, which made steering difficult. There are no gears, so pedaling uphill was hard work, and no apparent brakes, which meant that going downhill was an adventure.

safety bicycle from Wikipedia Velocipedes were expensive, uncomfortable, and difficult to ride, which limited their popularity. Compare Reggie's 1861 boneshaker to the "safety bicycles" which you see in the photograph at the top of this page, which is from the photo album described in "New Boston in 1899".

Innovations which made the safety bicycle more practical (and safe) included a chain drive to the rear wheel, which enabled free-wheeling and multiple gears, improved brakes, lightweight steel frame and spoked wheels, and air-filled rubber tires.

Prior to the invention of the bicycle, the only personal transportation available to the average citizen was the horse. You either walked somewhere, at three miles per hour, or you rode a horse, and most people walked rather than rode. That is because a horse is an expensive animal and rather inconvenient to use. It needs to be saddled, shoed, exercised, cleaned, rested, fed and watered. A bicycle — on the other hand — is relatively inexpensive, requires little maintenance, and does not go galloping off when it is spooked by a loud noise. The 1880s "safety bicycle" revolutionized transportation — at least until the availability of the first affordable motorcars, like the Ford Model T.

Keene parade 1898
1898 bicycle parade in Keene NH - from NHThenAndNow

Bicycles provided mobility to the gentlemen in the photo at the top of the page, and independence to ladies, too. Susan B. Anthony believed that bicycling "has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world." Over time, lady cyclists abandoned ankle-length dresses for more practical trousers called "bloomers".

Town Hall 2011
Postscript: There has been some progress since the invention of the safety bicycle.
Modern bikes go up and down New Boston hills with ease.