It’s 1885 and a couple dozen men stare down the camera in front of Sever Hall. Some stand, others recline on the grass. All sport dapper suits and caps. But the focus of the photo is the five-foot-tall steel contraptions lining the back row.
These are the men of the Harvard Bicycle Club, and their vehicles are high-wheelers, precursors to the modern-day bicycle.
The HBC, which became the country’s first collegiate cycling club upon its founding in 1879, was far from just a club sports team during its relatively brief existence. From organizing intercollegiate bicycle races to hosting nine-course dinners, the HBC aimed to make a then-new pastime a central athletic activity at Harvard — and foster a campus bicycling culture to boot.
First invented in England and imported to America starting in 1876, the high-wheeler’s design made it equally thrilling and dangerous. Its oversized front wheel allowed riders to cover significant distance with a single turn of the pedal; on the other hand, its high center of gravity meant hitting a rut could send riders flying over the handlebars — and its height meant such falls often entailed broken bones.
High-wheelers, also known as ordinaries or penny farthings, cost a pretty penny. A single cycle usually went for around $125 new, far out of reach for most in an era where farm laborers made less than $14 a month.
But to Harvard boys for whom money was no object, high-wheelers’ danger and novelty were part of the appeal: they represented an exhilarating new means of transport and an opportunity for athletic achievement and social capital. The HBC’s activities enabled all three.
Among the club’s regular rides, some were leisurely, social affairs: in the fall of 1883, The Crimson reported, 23 cyclists rode to Lexington, passing through Belmont and Arlington by moonlight. A “hearty supper” awaited the group in Lexington, during which “with the informality of song and speech and the general jollity the time passed only too quickly.” After toasts and encores and rounds of pool, the club members cycled back the way they came, reaching Harvard around 11 p.m.
Other rides were more about athletic prowess. In one common event, a group of riders called the “hares” would set out toward a destination, followed by a group of “hounds” five or eight minutes later. During the ensuing mad dash, the hounds would try to catch up, while the hares would try to hold off their pursuers, with prizes at stake for the more successful group. In addition to speed, the so-called hare and hounds runs were an exercise in navigation — instead of riding on a predetermined route, the hounds were tasked with following the hares’ “scent”, resulting in frequent wrong turns when the hares rode around a bend.
The club also organized annual bicycle meets, often at Jarvis Field, then Harvard’s main athletic facility, which featured a quarter-mile cycle track where the Law School is today. HBC members raced in distances from a half-mile to five miles, lining up beside members of competing cycling clubs, including MIT and Yale. By modern-day standards, the high-wheelers’ top speeds were pedestrian: one hare and hounds run gave a “time cup” prize to cyclists who kept up the scorching pace of 12 miles per hour.
Members sometimes challenged their endurance on long rides. One such ride in 1883 advertised a 45-mile trip to Plymouth, projected to take seven or eight hours.
The HBC was as much a social club as it was an athletic one, holding monthly “smokers,” a term for casual soirees, and extravagant end-of-year dinners.
The 1881 club dinner, held at the swanky Young’s Hotel in downtown Boston, came with an elaborate printed menu. The meal started with oysters and ended with fruit, and featured boiled quail, larded grouse, and “wine jellies” among the seven courses in between.
Over the rich fare, members would give toasts and sing songs. A booklet of songs printed for the 1880 dinner contains chestnuts like “Fair Harvard,” an original song titled “When a Student’s Been Enjoying Life in Boston,” and the club’s anthem, “Vive La H.B.C.” Among the lyrics of the French-inspired fight song: “Let every young bicyclist fill up his glass/… and drink to the health of his much-beloved class/ Vive la H.B.C.”
The certificate HBC members would receive upon admission (which was open to anyone who paid a $2 fee — and already owned a bicycle), signaled the status inclusion in the club conferred on its members. One such certificate, presented in 1881 to Thomas J. Coolidge Jr., Class of 1884, was signed by the club’s secretary and stamped with a scarlet wax seal embossed with the club’s logo: a high-wheel bicycle above the letters H.B.C., ringed with the Latin motto, “Mobilitate viget, viresque acquirit eundo.” Drawn from Virgil, the motto translates roughly to “it grows by moving, and gains strength as it advances.”
The club’s uniform also connoted refinement: gray jacket, knickerbocker trousers, stockings, and white flannel caps with a crimson H over the visor.
Toward the end of the 1880s, the HBC’s athletic arm gained more traction, coinciding with a major innovation in bicycle technology: the invention of the “safety” bicycle. What the new bicycle sacrificed in speed it more than made up for in safety — its more stable, equally-sized wheels made the technology more accessible to a wider swath of the population, including women and children.
The HBC’s membership grew, as did attendance at its annual meets. The club started adding new competitive divisions to its races including “maiden,” “tandem,” and “amateur,” and competitors flocked to the events from bicycle clubs across New England. By 1889, the annual meet was a high-profile affair: its printed program contained advertisements from major bicycling manufacturers and cyclists competed for valuable prizes, including an engraved silver cup, a Flobert rifle, and the recently released Kodak camera.
By 1890, The Crimson noted the HBC’s transformation: “Two years ago the club was hardly heard of and existed almost entirely as a social club. But since then it has become an athletic organization of some importance.”
Yet the HBC’s role as primarily a sports organization was short-lived: later that year, the club voted to give over control of organizing cycling races to the Harvard University Cycling Association, a new, soon-to-be-formed organization. A separate association, they hoped, would be better positioned to focus on establishing cycling as one of Harvard’s staple athletic pursuits, on par with established sports like football and track.
Meanwhile, the HBC would revert to its origins as primarily a social space for cyclists, as The Crimson reported: “The Harvard Bicycle Club will still continue as heretofore to be a social and bicycle club, holding smokers and weekly bicycle runs.”
The HUCA was founded with a lofty if vague goal: it was dedicated “to the intention of broadening the sport into areas hitherto unattained.” HUCA continued to organize bicycle meets for some decades, though it petered into a 50-year dormant period by the mid-20th century. In 1982, a Harvard student revived the association, and it continues to operate today, though on a smaller scale, as the Harvard Cycling Club.
The HBC, however, seemingly disintegrated — after 1894, there is no mention of the club in The Crimson’s archives. Perhaps the bicycle lost its luster in the face of something newer, shinier, and faster: the automobile.
— Magazine writer Maliya V. Ellis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @EllisMaliya.