Every year, Americans mark Presidents’ Day with an orgy of auto sales, kicking-off the car-buying season. Our celebration of George Washington’s birthday is now firmly intertwined with the automobile, a testament to the powerful grip of car culture upon our civic imagination. But more than a century ago, February 22 bore a very different identity: It was Bicycle Day.
Washington’s Birthday inspired local observances in the early republic, with speeches, banquets, and parades. Not until the Gilded-Age upsurge in veneration for the founding fathers, though, were these celebrations nationally recognized. February 22nd became a federal holiday in 1885. By then, the parades had petered out. Offices were closed, stores were shuttered. The public was at leisure, with little to do.
The nation, by then, was deep in the grip of the bicycle craze. In Boston, cyclists used the public holiday to hold bicycle races before cheering throngs. Local bike stores opened their doors to entice the race-day crowds, bringing them in off the snowy streets to preview the pleasures of spring. February 22 soon marked the start of the season, the day on which bicycle retailers held open houses to show off their latest models to eager crowds. “Yesterday was bicycle day in Boston,” reported the Boston Globe in 1895.
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