Thursday, January 5, 2012

What is a Scorcher (of the 1890s)?

The question came up on another blog as to "what is a scorcher?" in reference to an 1896 pledge by a cyclist not to be one. A cyclist who was a scorcher was commonly understood to ride aggressively at high speeds outside of controlled races risking crashes with other riders, pedestrians, and others. The scorcher was also commonly criticized for his (or her) less than upright seat on the bicycle. (This posture, however, was perfectly OK during a race . . . ) Since the bicycles of the day either had no brakes at all or generally poor ones compared to what we are used to today, the potential for mayhem was that much greater.

A "Scorcher"
A "scorcher" in costume in an 1896 parade in Washington DC

The phrase "scorcher" was well enough known that someone dressed as a devil riding a bike would be understood to be spoofing the idea of being one. This scorcher, however, is sitting up nicely. From the Washington DC Morning Times of July 15, 1896.

Female "scorcher"
A woman could also be a scorcher

Note her aggressive position on the bicycle, not to mention her mannish attire, as portrayed in Dr. Neesen's Book on Wheeling.

And we have this poem from an 1896 issue of the L.A.W Bulletin and Good Roads.

I am the scorcher!
Please observe
The curve
That appertains unto my spine!
With head ducked low
I go
O'er man and beast, and woe
Unto the thing
That fails to scamper when I ting-a-ling!
Let people jaw
And go to law
To try to check my gate.
If that's their game!
I hate
To kill folks, but I'll do it just the same,
I guess,
They clear the track for me;
Because, you see,
I am the scorcher, full of zeal,
And just the thing I look like on the wheel!

The "incorrect" position for riding
The problem with this fellow is his less than upright posture

A rider's "incorrect position" as shown in The Bicycle: Its Selection, Riding and Care from 1892.

Yes, as much as anything, the problem with scorchers seems to have been their aggressive posture, although why it was OK for the race track but not OK on city streets is a mystery.

1 comment:

  1. Nice blog. In 19th Century, pets and timid folks were terrified of the speed that scorchers achieved on modern utility bicycles. A Rhode Island judge in 1915 gave the first sentence to a motorist for driving recklessly at 15 mph! A New York intersection was the first to receive a traffic light after a collision between a bicycle and car.

    Been blogging on the bicycling culture since 2008: