Emery on Cropper and Whidden, eds. (2023)

Cropper, Corry and Seth Whidden, editors. Velocipedomania: A Cultural History of the Velocipede in France. Bucknell UP, 2023, ISBN 978-1-68448-433-1

“More than a trend or a sport [the velocipede] is a fever,” proclaims Richard Lesclide in the 1869 Manual of the Velocipede, one of the rapturous texts translated by Corry Cropper and Seth Whidden in their wide-ranging micro-history of the optimistic period immediately preceding the Franco-Prussian war. An iron-framed machine propelled by pedals attached to wooden wheels, the French-engineered vélocipède was manufactured and heavily marketed by Pierre Michaux as of 1867, thus leading to the eponymous “mania” of the book’s title. In this immensely enjoyable and highly original volume brimming with illustrations, helpful notes, short texts, and links to online musical recordings, Cropper and Whidden study responses to the development of this prototype vélo, thus bringing much-deserved attention to the optimistic Zeitgeist of a period now haunted by the specter of the Paris Commune.

Celebrated in seemingly every corner of 1868–69 life, words like “folly,” “exuberance,” “zeal,” and “craze” punctuate the text, capturing stylistically the energy the vélocipède’s enthusiasts projected onto it through plays, poems, caricatures, newspaper articles, advertisements, short stories, songs, and guides. Cropper and Whidden examine in particular the liberatory potential of this new means of locomotion: an inexpensive and flexible mode of travel, the vélocipède promised to increase the efficiency of rural postal and telegraph workers, soldiers and police in France and in the colonies, and those making delivery services. In addition, it offered to improve public health and to create new leisure pursuits for the young and the fit. The incongruity of elderly and corpulent Second Empire politicians astride vélocipèdes proved an irresistible target for writers and caricaturists alike, thus firmly embedding the new device into the political imaginary.

After an engaging introduction that situates the vélocipède in its cultural and historical context, the authors devote four chapters to texts from different genres, each expertly translated (Scott Carpenter accurately describes their effect in English as “rollicking” on the book cover). Each is also accompanied by insights into the text’s author, objectives, and contribution to the phenomenon of velocipedomania. In chapter one, “The Utilitarian Velocipede,” Baron de la Rue advocates for the new device and its myriad possibilities for health, travel, and work in an 1868 newspaper article (“Note on Monsieur Michaux’s Velocipede”), while noting a few practical concerns (roads, hills, theft, learning curve). Chapter two, “The Velocipede on Stage,” centers on Dagobert and His Velocipede, an 1868 opéra bouffe by Henri Blondeau with music by Frédéric Demarquette, one of many that year to feature actors cycling on stage (spoiler alert: vélocipèdes are transported to the Middle Ages). Cropper and Whidden weave in references to other cycling songs, such as the “Duo des vélocipèdes” from Le Petit Poucet (Eugène Leterrier and Albert Vanloo with music by Laurent de Rillé), the anonymous “The Velocipedes,” and Henri Blondeau’s later (1880s) “Frou Frou.”

Chapter three, “Narrating Velocipedomania,” centers on the Manual of the Velocipede, penned by the indefatigable Lesclide, a cycling “fanatic,” editor of the illustrated Le Vélocipède, and ten-year secretary of Victor Hugo (we do not learn whether Lesclide attempted to introduce the septuagenarian to the pleasures of cycling). A wide-ranging text, it presents a variety of embedded short stories and anecdotes featuring the vélocipède as central figure: at war, as erotic, and as beloved by women, thus prompting questions about the real lived experience of women cyclists in relation to their generally objectified or caricaturized representations in the press. Lesclide’s wife, Mélanie Ignard (author of the 1902 Victor Hugo intime), is tantalizingly introduced in one of the final paragraphs of Velocipedomania as a writer as enthusiastic in her praise of the new machine as her husband. And yet, no examples of her writing are provided to gauge how real women may have experienced cycling in the late 1860s. Marketers touted women’s appreciation of the velocipede to sell devices to men, caricaturists fantasized about cycling costumes, and writers created fictional women whose skill at the vélopede rivals or surpasses those of their brothers and admirers. The authors deftly evoke the complex debates about gender dynamics generated by the new device, but how did real women respond to such representations and to their own experiences of speed?

The final chapter, “Velocipedomania in Verse,” analyzes a handful of 1868–69 poems inspired by cycling: Théodore de Banville’s “Here comes the Velocipede Man,” an untitled verse appraisal of cycling as a metaphor for politics (skill, flexibility, equilibrium) attributed to Ravenel, and teenager Raoul Suérus’s “The Velocipede,” which captured the rhythms and incongruities of cycling for a student festival. Catering to readers’ visual interest, the authors have incorporated an enormous number of fascinating caricatures and illustrations (some in color) by artists such as Honoré Daumier, André Gill, Alfred Grévin, Paul Hadol, Albert Robida, Émile Benassit, and Alfred Delvau. These marvelous visual riffs on possibilities for the new device (a nautical vélocipède, top-hatted cyclists commanded by Amazones, and monuments to famous cyclists, among many other often-hilarious portrayals) enrich the volume and further contribute to gauging the vélocipède’s powerful hold on the French imagination. A helpful conclusion traces the machine’s decline during the Franco-Prussian War and its eventual replacement by the modern vélo, thanks largely to the groundwork laid by enthusiasts from the earlier period.

Cropper and Whidden deftly position a wide-ranging set of representative examples of velocipedomania into a well-ordered peloton whose combined force generates readerly enthusiasm and appreciation for the effects of this new and particularly French device. Not only was the vélocipède enjoyable and practical, this new invention also inspired its riders to advocate for the individual and civil liberties and the technological progress that would lead to cycling’s popularity under the Third Republic. This thoroughly enjoyable volume will fascinate a wide variety of readers. Any one of the included texts or caricatures contain the potential to spark classroom debate among students enrolled in curricular units dedicated to different aspects of nineteenth-century French culture: urbanism, technology, tourism, sport, hygiene, fashion, popular spectacle, gender dynamics, politics, economics, literature, and more. 

Elizabeth Emery
Montclair State University