Corry Cropper and Seth WhiddenOct 21, 2023
A Cultural History of the Velocipede in France
Bucknell University Press 2022
Today we are joined by Corry Cropper, a Professor of French at Brigham Young University, and one of two authors, alongside Seth Whidden, of Velocipedomania: A Cultural History of the Velocipede in France (Bucknell University Press, 2023). In our conversation we discussed the origin of the velocipede and how it illuminated the paradoxes of cultural life in Second Empire France.
In Velocipedomania, Cropper and Whidden argue that a close examination of the velocipede and the discourse around it both highlight the complexities of class, gender and modernity in late Second Empire France but also prefigure the links between the Third Republic and the French bicycle craze of the late 19th century. Through a close look at a range of primary sources, mostly drawn from 1868-1869, and carefully translated and reproduced in whole in the text, they demonstrate that the velocipede was more than a passing fad. The velocipede was instead a vital symbol of French modernity and tradition, masculinity and femininity, practicality and fancy, and machine power and body power.
The book contains four major sections. Each correspond to a different primary source or set of primary sources. The most significant of the texts is The Manual of the Velocipede, written by Richard Lesclide and illustrated by Emile Benassit. The Manual contains scientific articles, short stories, instructions on how to learn to ride a velocipede, and dozens of images that provided some of the earliest visual lexicons of bicycle riding. Cropper and Whidden reproduce complete translations of these sections, copies of the images, and unpack them in text and footnotes.
Cropper and Whidden’s text and footnotes provide necessary context and compelling analysis; the sources can also be read alone and excerpted for teaching. Their discussion of the Manual for example focuses on a series of themes: the carnivalesque, the social classes of the Second Empire, gender difference, the erotic, and the modern and the traditional. Readers interested in the gender politics of velocipede riding will discover both the progressive and the retrograde. Cropper and Whidden show how the velocipede fad opened the door to sporting women who were able to use the machine to travel further than ever before but public decorum and sartorial conventions still limited the ways that women were able to ride.
In a section called Note on Monsieur Michaux’s Velocipede, Cropper and Whidden solve a historical mystery. They identify the note’s author: a French naval officer de la Rue and velocipede enthusiast who invented the aquatic velocipede. De la Rue’s Note offered practical explanations for why the French state should invest in velocipedes, including the speed of telegraph delivery and the protection of the borders from smugglers. At the same time, he also emphasized the pleasure he derived from riding his cycle.
In the second chapter, Cropper and Whidden sketch out the history of velocipedes on stage. They show how velocipedes rolled into French opera following the liberalization of the medium during the final years of the Second Empire. Their translated text, Dagobert and his Velocipede, remains a very entertaining read. Their translation is joke dense and readers will need to flip between the text and footnotes to understand their witty and pun filled translation.
A final chapter examines velocipedes and poetry.
Cropper and Whidden’s innovative approach to unpacking the history of the velocipede, which so successfully integrates translated primary sources, should be read by scholars interested in French history and sports history. It will also be very useful in classroom teaching.
Keith Rathbone is a Senior Lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He researches twentieth-century French social and cultural history.