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Explore Chicago’s role in bicycle culture at new design exhibit

In 1897, Chicago manufacturers were making nearly two-thirds of all bicycles nationwide

Detail of Arnold, Schwinn & Co. stationery with “The ‘World’ Cycles” branding, Arnold, Schwinn & Co., 1905.
Design Museum of Chicago.

Chicago is in many ways the ideal city for biking: with its easy-to-comprehend grid system and mercifully flat terrain, it’s easy to travel in any direction and bike unimpeded for miles on end.

But even if biking is increasingly popular today, the city’s golden era for bikes actually came more than a century ago. As documented in “Keep Moving: Designing Chicago’s Bike Culture,” a new exhibit opening Saturday, October 27 and curated by the Design Museum of Chicago, the city was instrumental in promoting bicycling nationwide before cars took over city streets.

Hosted in a pop-up space at 72 E. Randolph Street, with an accompanying gallery set to open at the museum’s main space at Block 37 in mid-November, “Keep Moving” catalogs many aspects of the city’s contribution to American biking. Beyond changes to bike design that the exhibit documents, museum and exhibit curator Lauren Boegen hopes that it will challenge people to think about ongoing differences in how biking is experienced in the city.

“The fact that there’s not the same type of infrastructure on the South and the North Side, that really impacts people’s ability to ride a bicycle, but it also impacts a whole bunch of other things,” Boegen said. “When you look through that lens of riding a bicycle, it helps to focus some attention on these broader issues.”

The bicycle exploded in popularity around the late 19th century, and by 1897, Chicago manufacturers were responsible for two-thirds of all nationwide production. But cars began to take over American streets and the industry deflated.

Still, the durability of Chicago’s influence on bicycles became obvious during the Great Depression reflected in the high-quality bikes being produced by Arnold, Schwinn & Company. Thanks to the introduction of the balloon tire to the U.S. in 1933 and the glamorous, motorcycle-inspired Aerocycle a year later, the company fought off bankruptcy and made a lasting impression on the country’s obsession with bikes.

“Keep Moving” traces this incredible facet of Chicago’s history, one that’s largely been forgotten as the city lost its many bike manufacturers. But it goes even deeper by asking viewers to think about the powerful symbolic role bikes have played in our lives. The exhibit also looks at how we can use biking today to understand other important issues in our city.

“From a historic perspective, you see the bicycle as a symbol of empowerment for women at the turn of the century, shifting from Victorian gender roles to what we would consider more modern gender roles,” Boegen said. “Perhaps its easier to say this in hindsight, but maybe the bike is a symbol for some of these contemporary issues.”