Review of The Two-Wheeled World of George B. Thayer

Hayes, Kevin J. The Two-Wheeled World of George B. Thayer. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015. Pp. xviii+257. Introduction, notes, bibliography, and index. Hardcover: $28.95

Reviewed by Ari de Wilde

In his book, The Two-Wheeled World of George B. Thayer, Kevin J. Hayes explores the cycling experience of Connecticut bicycle tourist, George B. Thayer. From the 1870s to the turn of the twentieth century, Thayer was one of a number of cyclists–both male and female and white and non-white–to cross the country by bicycle and write about it. In a rapidly modernizing world, the ability to travel great distances under one’s own power was one of the ultimate symbols of living in the future. On a bicycle, people really had the freedom to travel wherever they wanted. And the idea of riding, freedom, and touring was as popular as the actual action itself. As Hayes puts it, Thayer could “turn a pedal and a phrase” (p. 151).

Thayer Full

University of Nebraska Press, 2015

Among many other contemporaries, cyclist Thomas Stevens’ experience and extensive two volume work, Around the World on a Bicycle (1888), was the most famous of the bicycle tourist autobiographical genre; however, there were many others who contracted often with local newspapers and magazines to report on their trips. The autobiographies are excellent resources for scholars in a variety of disciplines looking for de Toquevillian accounts of America and, in some cases, the world at this point in the past. As bicycle tourism has continued to remain popular in the present, several authors have explored the meaning and significance of these riders, as does Hayes, a professor emeritus at the University of Central Oklahoma, in his well-regarded previous book, An American Cycling Odyssey, 1887, about George W. Nellis’ cross-country cycling expedition that year. In fact, Hayes came across the news accounts of George Thayer and his sister, Florine Thayer McCray, while researching this book. Researchers paid little attention to George Thayer;  as a rider he was not interested in setting land-speed records in cycling and was instead generally interested in touring. But the recent historiography also includes David Herlihy’s 2011 The Lost Cyclist, which looks at the death of cycling correspondent Frank Lenz overseas, and Duncan Jamieson’s 2015 comprehensive Self Propelled Voyager, which provides an overview of bicycle tourists, including Thayer, and their experiences through this period and throughout the twentieth century.

I found this particular biography fascinating because it covers not only Thayer’s career, but it also provided insights into his context of the Hartford, Connecticut area, Thayer’s home and a central hub of bicycle manufacturing during the 1880s and 1890s. The work largely revolves and relies on Thayer’s autobiographical work–especially his 1887 Pedal and Path: Across The Continent Awheel and Afoot. Hayes also does a nice job in covering the local presses–in particular the Hartford Courant, a paper for which Thayer worked as a reporter.

Uniquely, Hayes’ narrative follows Thayer through his experiences with all three of the main types and eras of bicycles–the velocipede, known as a boneshaker, of the late 1860s and early 1870s; the high wheeler of the late 1870s and 1880s; and the still common, pneumatic tired, “safety” bicycle with two equal-sized wheels of the 1890s and later. The narrative begins by describing Thayer’s childhood near Rockville, Connecticut, during the Civil War and his immediate love of the outdoors, travel, and penchant for writing about his experiences. Thayer began his professional career as grocer in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1869 after he rode the train there, mainly out of curiosity. He migrated back to Connecticut and discovered the High Wheel bicycle around 1880 and started notably riding it around the state and New England in 1884. At that time, riding 100 miles or a “century,” as it is still known today, was an event that was covered in newspapers. From riding around Connecticut, Thayer started journeying farther through his New England. New Hampshire’s White Mountains were a particular favorite and helped Thayer to start bicycle touring. The peaks were also near where Thayer met his demise. Fittingly, he was walking back from a trip to the White Mountains in 1928 at age 75 when he had a heart attack. In between these trips to the White Mountains, Hayes presents a fascinating narrative of Thayer touring the North American and European continents and working as a freelance journalist. The book also describes how in the 1890s, Thayer joined the Connecticut National Guard and helped them to test the equal-wheel-sized “safety” bicycle during the 1890s. As his cycling tourist-journalist days dwindled in the 1890s, Thayer eventually went to Yale Law School and worked as a lawyer and prosecutor. He particularly had a reputation as “Ginger-Ale George” for his penchant at enforcing Hartford’s strict anti-liquor laws (p. 209). All the while, Thayer dutifully attended and worked out at YMCAs until the end of his life.

Describing Thayer’s milieu and Connecticut-based “world” is the work’s strength–it provides a vision of the Hartford area that is nearly impossible to locate now. On the other hand, while Hayes discusses the impact of Thayer’s sister, Florine– who was also a writer and a cyclist–he does not highlight the extremely discriminatory context in which the Thayers traveled and worked–in terms of race, gender, and class. Nonetheless, Hayes’ Two-Wheeled World was enthralling and elucidating for this resident of the eastern portion of the Nutmeg State. Hayes’ stated aim is to show that “bicycle-touring stories of the past deserve to be remembered and retold” and he certainly accomplishes that goal (p. xiii). It is a book I would certainly recommend for anyone interested in American cycling culture as well as New England and American studies, more generally.

Ari de Wilde is an Assistant Professor of Sport and Leisure Management at Eastern Connecticut State University. His main research interests are in the business history of sport and the North American bicycle racing industry. He received his BA from Bates College —2005— (History), MA—2007— and PhD—2010— from The Ohio State University in Sport Humanities. His articles and book reviews have appeared in the Journal of Macromarketing, Journal of Historical Research in MarketingJournal of Sport HistoryQuest, and International Journal of Sport Management. He can be reached at dewildea@easternct.edu and on Twitter @aodewilde.

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