Female cyclist wheeling bicycle up muddy hill on St. Clair Avenue West, Toronto, 1907

So what is a “push bike”?

Spine of James T. Lightwood's The Cyclists Touring Club, the Romance of Fifty Years Cycling (1928).

Spine of James T. Lightwood’s The Cyclists Touring Club, the Romance of Fifty Years Cycling (1928).

In a recent post on his excellent blog “Roads Were Not Built for Cars”, Carlton Reid issued an impassioned plea for the UK’s Department for Transport to cease using the term “push-bike” to describe the bicycle.  Reid argued that the term, first put forward in 1903, was offensive, old-fashioned and obnoxious.

Reid cited James T. Lightwood’s 1928 history of the Cyclists’ Touring Club, “The Romance of the Cyclists’ Touring Club”, which suggested that the term “push bike” was first used by Joseph Pennell (1857-1926) in 1903 and was intended as a put down.

Pennell was and is best known as an American author and illustrator but he was also a keen traveller and travel writer.  Based in Britain, Pennell regularly travelled with his high-society journalist wife Elizabeth and together they wrote about their travels and cycling exploits in many of the leading journals of the day.  Pennell was a long-time user of bicycles and tricycles but around the turn of the twentieth century he converted to motor cycling.  Thereafter, according to Lightwood, he began using the term “push bike” to describe his former mode of transport in an “obnoxious” and “objectionable” fashion.

Female cyclist wheeling bicycle up muddy hill on St. Clair Avenue West, Toronto, 1907

Female cyclist wheeling bicycle up muddy hill on St. Clair Avenue West, Toronto, 1907. Image available in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

It was around the time that this female cyclist was pushing her bicycle (or “push bike”) along a muddy avenue in Toronto that the term itself began to enter common usage.

The earliest recorded usage for “push bike” (n.) in the Oxford English Dictionary (this may require a login) was from a June 1910 issue of Autocar: ‘A scratch race on ‘push bikes’ for A. A. Patrols.’ but the OED also records an early usage of “push bicycle” (n.) from 1906: Bazaar, Exchange & Mart in November 1906: ‘Exchange [motor-cycle]..for good make 25in push bicycle and cash.’

However, I have come across a few slightly earlier references, in particular to “push bike”.

In Henry Revell Reynolds’ Motor for moderate incomes (1905) p47, the author comments on the difficulties of driving a motorcar in adverse weather conditions:

…more considerable that a “push-bike,” so it is very advisable to take precautions and notice whether rain has fallen, little or much.

Also in late 1905/ early 1906, The Bystander: An Illustrated Weekly, Devoted to Travel, Literature, Art, the Drama, Progress, Locomotion Volume 8, p414 compared the bicycle and the motor-bike thus:

Besides the push-bike and its heavier brother, the motor-bike….

Headline from ""The Little Motor-Car. Revelations of the Holidays. On the Portsmouth Road." The Times, 14 April 1914, p10.

Headline from “”The Little Motor-Car. Revelations of the Holidays. On the Portsmouth Road.” The Times, 14 April 1914, p10.

The phrase “push bike” may have begun to be popularised between 1906 and 1910 but it was not until April 1914 when The Times of London decided to use it for the first time and, in an article entitled “The Little Motor-Car. Revelations of the Holidays. On the Portsmouth Road.” (will require login), somewhat contrarily argued that the term “push bike” itself was a signaller of the demise of the bicycle.

In this short article, the author noted:

Even that hansom, as car after car whirls by it, from the stately touring-car to the derisive little imp of a motor-bicycle, must admit that the Portsmouth Road to-day is the road of the motor.  But the motor’s kingdom is not yet undisputed.  It is a year or two now since what used to be known merely as a bicycle came to be called distinctively and contemptuously a “push-bike,” just as a carriage is now a “horse-drawn” carriage.  There is a knell in each epithet: but the push-bike’s day is not yet over.  You notice them only as you notice the kind of midge that does not bite – by reason of their numbers.  They are all over the road, in hundreds – and two per cent of them are by the side of the road, upside down having their punctures mended.

However, it wasn’t until 1916 when the term – especially in the form “push-bike” – began to take off as this Google Ngram (to be taken with a pinch of a salt, at least for the earlier entries) shows.