Below you will find the “accepted” version of an article eventually published as “Reconsidering the Victory Bike in World War II: Federal Transportation Policy, History, and Bicycle Commuting in America,” expanded with additional links and images. The accepted version is posted here in accordance with author guidelines; for the published version see the Transportation Research Record. DOI.
It would indeed be transformative if a present-day government program did actually support active transportation with meaningful investments and institutional support — but the Victory Bike program is not the example that many think it is. Its history is a bit more complicated than we remember, and deserves some thoughtful reconsideration. Perhaps, as a part of a Green New Deal or any other large-scale federal transportation policy, our goal might not be to return to the Victory Bike, but to improve upon it.
Today, cities across the United States are attempting the difficult task of re-introducing adult bicycle transportation to urban streets. While utilitarian cycling for adults varies between cities and nations, American rates lag many other comparable nations ([i]). Why is this so? While many focus on variance from the global built environment ([ii]), the implementation and aftermath of the largest federal policy for bicycle transportation in the 20thcentury also shaped this outcome.
At the outset of World War II, the United States instituted an impressively large set of federal programs to efficiently manage strategic resources and train, arm, and deploy military forces while still maintaining a functioning consumer economy. A small piece of that effort was Revised Ration Order 7 of July, 1942, an action intended to harness the manufacture, distribution, and sale of bicycles to diversify adult transportation options ([iii]). While it was only a small piece of the overall war effort, it still represented the largest federal policy intervention in bicycle transportation in the history of the United States, taking complete control of the bicycle industry. In the decades after the war, in the rare moments it was remembered, this intervention was colloquially referred to as the “Victory Bike” program. The Victory Bike was often described as part of the way that Americans won the war, and later generations of cyclists proudly thought of it as a symbol of the bicycle’s true utility in exigent circumstances: a parable of virtue for the edification of non-cycling America.
This celebratory history of bicycle transportation in WWII served a purpose for environmentalist and pro-bike rhetoric, and reflected available journalistic sources. But the Victory Bike was not a victory for American bicycling; instead, it served to differentiate American adult bicycling for transportation from global cultures. In a multitude of ways, the Victory Bike program hobbled bicycle manufacturing and severely limited bicycle use rather than promoting it. Its name confuses matters, and tricks our understanding of the meaning of the bicycle’s past, present and future. This paper argues that we should reconsider the program as a defeat rather than a victory. Embracing this interpretation can help us to understand the unique difficulties inherent in bringing the bicycle back to a mono-modal America.
Evidence and Methodology
This study compares a literature survey of the rhetoric of the Victory Bicycle program of WWII from the early war and postwar eras against previously-unexamined internal records of the Office of Price Administration. By comparing the nation’s monthly quotas (as well as certificate and production numbers) against this journalistic coverage, the discrepancies between the early-1942 coverage of the Victory Bike program and the actual implementation of Revised Ration Order 7 after July of that year become stark. This first-ever compilation of monthly quotas allows for greater understanding of the stark limitations on wartime cycling, which belies both pre-war boasts and post-war accounts.
POSTWAR LITERATURE REVIEW
The Victory Bike has become a symbol of hope and success in the 73 years since the war. Mike Davis, writing in the Sierra club’s magazine in 2007, remembers that “[i]n the 1940s, Americans simultaneously battled fascism overseas and waste at home.” As a part of that battles, “[m]y parents, their neighbors, and millions of others left cars at home to ride bikes to work.” To support that change, recalled Davis, “less than two months after Pearl Harbor, a new secret weapon, the ‘victory bike’–made of nonessential metals, with tires from reclaimed rubber–was revealed on front pages and in newsreels” ([iv]). Historian Zack Furness describes the positive journalistic coverage of the Victory Bike stories in WWII as a rare instance of the popular press promoting adult cycling “by framing it as a pragmatic and patriotic endeavor meant to bolster the war effort” ([v]). David Herlihy’s history of the bicycle contends that “the utilitarian bicycle assumed an even greater presence” with the coming of the war, and that the federal government committed to producing “750,000 bicycles in 1942” to meet wartime needs ([vi]). In 2006 the Smithsonian Institution even acquired a Victory Bike, securing the object’s place in history. The name “victory bike” has come to be so positive that it has been adopted by shops, manufacturers, and Victory Motorcycles (for some years, a brand of the Polaris Corporation). The name “victory bike” has undergone a transformation in meaning and association – from wartime sacrifice to nostalgic pride.
But before World War II, the idea of putting adults on bikes was one part of the task of re-shaping nearly the entire American economy to serve strategic needs. In this total commitment to war, federal agencies planned to intervene not only in consumer choices but in labor agreements, price controls, allocation of resources, and industrial priorities. The Victory Bike program was only a tiny, easily forgettable fragment of a massive project to harness the complete economy for strategic purposes.
The bicycle program was only one among dozens of interventions in the consumer economy, many of which were planned in the tense months (and even years) before America’s official entry into the war. In some ways, the Office of Price Administration (OPA) and similar domestic wartime agencies were merely extensions of New Deal programs, price controls and labor agreements. The OPA worked not only to keep down wartime inflation and efficiently distribute consumer goods, but also to enforce limits and prosecute offenders. In the case of the transportation sector, significant limitations on petroleum, rubber, and metals were necessary so that nearly all of those resources would be reallocated for military ships, planes, tanks and bombs. Only the bare minimum would be diverted to maintain the productive capability of the domestic economy. Transportation policy choices envisioned before the war therefore included severe rationing of gasoline and tires for consumer automobiles, the elimination of new automobiles for civilians, continued transit, and a plan to partially replace automobile travel with adult bicycling.
By January of 1942, just a month after Pearl Harbor, federal agencies announced a rough plan to implement that choice: instead of eliminating the manufacture of new bicycles for the consumer – as had been done with many other consumer goods — the federal government would instead select a small number of manufacturers to build a spartan, standardized design for adults. A large number of new bicycles would be produced each year for military and civilian use, with the civilian portion being prioritized for those with legitimate needs. It was an amazingly detailed, centrally-controlled system. It included concentration of manufacturing, standardization on bare-bones designs, price controls, and monthly re-balancing of nationwide stocks.
How would the Depression-weary American public, buffeted by fears of wartime austerity and rapid mobilization, react to news of government-dictated transportation choices? In the first months of the war, the journalistic frame was set with positive stories about the plans for bicycle transportation. Local and national papers alike reprinted accounts of Leon Henderson (soon to be head of the newly-designated Office of Price Administration, previously the Office of Production Management), test-riding prototype Victory Bikes around Washington, D.C.’s national mall in early January of 1942 (Figure 1).
The cheerful stories of the publicity stunt seemed a welcome relief for journalists. Reproduced in Life magazine, newsreels, and countless newspapers, the image of the cigar-chomping Henderson put a positive and patriotic spin on the central message: wartime rationing of gas and tires was coming, but bicycles were one replacement ([vii]).
Months later, cartoonists could reference the positive imagery of Henderson’s ride in otherwise unrelated work, depicting cheerful bankers with onboard stenographers ([viii]).
Journalistic coverage of the photo opportunity tended to end with a punch line, praising Henderson’s “executive ability” as proven by the fact that he could “manage the bicycle, a wide-brimmed hat, a big cigar and a stenographer on the handle bars simultaneously” ([ix]).
But the same cheerful stories also foretold the limitations, rationing, and deprivation of wartime. A Geneva, New York account mixed the silliness of the photo opportunity with ominous warnings: “Henderson took time off . . . to give Mr. and Mrs. America an idea of what wartime transportation may come to in this country.” The humorous parts still noted that Henderson “fired up one of his six-inch cigars and took a test run on the new ‘Victory’ bicycle, carrying pretty Betty Barrett,” and that he “managed a few maneuvers in the ‘look, no hands’ style.” But coming sacrifices were in the details – the bike would only be made for adults, with “no copper or nickel,” with reclaimed rubber tires “scarcely thicker than a thumb,” a far cry from the popular two-inch-wide balloon tires. The bikes would be “[b]uilt plainly, without brightwork or fancy fixtures,” out of as little steel as possible and in government-dictated numbers: the newspaper story reported a target of 750,000 new adult bicycles for 1942, in comparison to “1,827,000 bicycles made last year” ([x]).
Even though that yearly target would never be met, the boast of 750,000 new bikes helped set the positive tone for the Victory Bike. A promise that American industry would rise to the occasion and fill in for automobile restrictions, it was repeated throughout early coverage and credulously reprinted in countless histories thereafter. While 750,000 was a significant restriction compared to previous years, it still represented increased adult bikes, and generously promised new production when other consumer products were entirely curtailed. Not stopping at that already-ambitious goal, Timemagazine reported in January that “manufacturers . . . agreed that they could produce 1,000,000 bicycles in 1942” if allocated sufficient steel and rubber, and the New York Timeswent even further in March, reporting “a planned output of 2,500,000 for 1943” ([xi], [xii]). This would never happen.
While the general reception of the Victory Bike program was positive, not everyone was pleased. Jack Stinnett called it “a lot of balderdash” in his syndicated column. “America is a land of distances,” he argued: “Its problems are not at all those of cycling England, where distances are relatively short.” It was “a bit of fallacious reasoning . . . that the nation is going to take to bicycle wheels overnight.” Stinnett specifically called the goal of 2 million bikes per year unrealistic ([xiii]).
Even more extreme responses appeared. The anti-FDR (and often anti-Semitic) magazine Social Justice, a publication of the demagogic Father Coughlin, mocked “Radical Leon Henderson” and rued the coming era of bicycle-borne deprivation and red-tinged collectivization, reporting that Henderson “grunted his satisfaction with this New Deal method of transportation” after dismounting from his ride. The story fretted that “some nationalized factory” would be chosen to build the bikes, further warning of the “possible confiscation of the 10-million bicycles now in operation by school children, messenger boys and others.” Bashing wartime plans as authoritarian socialism, the story feared coming austerity: “Here’s hoping this damnable war will be over soon . . . If it lasts from five to ten years, there is the possibility of Americans going around in newspaper undershirts” ([xiv]).
Even generally-positive wartime coverage understood the Victory Bike program to have the goal of restricting the universe of consumer choices to a limited palette of options. Standardization on adult designs was a wartime sacrifice. In the case of the Victory Bike, the “lightweight” designs were understood to be cheap, utilitarian, unfashionable, and one-size-fits-all.
Thus, at the beginning of 1942, the journalistic frame of the Victory Bike program was set: it was a massive federal investment of strategic resources to design, manufacture and distribute an efficient bicycle to replace missing automobile transportation. While the rationing, concentration, standardization, and centralized control of this and other OPA programs were understood as sacrifices, journalistic coverage cast them as necessary and even patriotic in the face of wartime conditions. Rationing was intended to control inflation, keep the American homefront functioning, and ameliorate suffering. A stern-faced Leon Henderson argued this point in the newsreel Washington in Wartime: “Make no mistake: This regulation is a warmeasure . . . it is a guarantee to the American people that their cost of living will stay put.” Over footage showing Henderson on his prototype bike, the narrator declares that his ride “sets a patriotic example to citizens everywhere” ([xv]). While this early description of the Victory Bike program is often what is remembered, it was not what actually happened.
The OPA/WPB conflict
In reality, the early promise of extensive production – with targets of 750,000 (or possibly two million) new adult bikes per year from twelve different manufacturers – was quickly abandoned, largely without fanfare. Many things changed between the first announcements of the Victory Bike in early 1942 and the implementation of Revised Ration Order 7 in July; even as initial public impressions lasted.
Two historical observations explain this wide divergence. The first is that different agencies were at the wheel; logical assumptions about transportation needs made in 1939 — by the National Defense Advisory Commission and the Office of Production Management — were discarded by the War Production Board in 1942. As historian Sarah Jo Peterson has pointed out, “in four years, the federal bureaucratic structure shifted four times,” which both complicates our later reconstruction of events and explains how official positions might quickly be reversed ([xvi]).
A second observation can also explain how different agencies could hold diverging points of view on bicycle transportation at exactly the same time. Specifically, two federal agencies engaged in an internal debate in the first year of the war, with very different perspectives on the strategic feasibility of replacing automobiles with bicycles. The War Production Board (WPB) was the more powerful of the two, with wide-ranging responsibilities to apportion raw materials, set defense quotas, and harness the economy for strategic purposes ([xvii]). The Office of Price Administration (OPA) was delegated by the WPB to ration what products would be left after military needs were filled. It set prices, divvied up goods, and enforced rules ([xviii],[xix]).
The wide divergence between agencies — and between pre-war rhetoric and wartime reality — becomes obvious when examining the internal records of the OPA, something that bicycle historians have not previously done. In locations across the United States, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) holds the estimated 2,454 items and 12,000 cubic feet of textual, photographic, and film records of the OPA. Under Record Group 188, most of these documents detail the many different consumer rationing programs, from home heating oil to sugar. But some boxes contain records of the Automobile Supply Division of Washington D.C., which managed bicycle rationing. This paper summarizes these previously-uncited records from the NARA II at College Park, Maryland, as well as the NARA Regional Archives in Chicago, Illinois.
From these internal records it becomes clear that the OPA and WPB held conflicting views on the viability and desirability of the planned bicycle rationing program. While the OPA stuck with pre-war assumptions that new bicycle (and bicycle tire) production could ameliorate the impacts of gasoline rationing, by June of 1942 the WPB had become deeply pessimistic about the availability of rubber and steel to allow for what it now considered the luxury of bicycle production. For months, the two agencies traded internal reports about which was the more efficient use of strategic resources: new adult bicycles to replace automobile travel, or continued use of the car tires that were already on civilian automobiles ([xx]).
Before that conflict broke out, the OPA’s Automobile Supply Division assumed that wartime bicycle transportation was desirable, and collected statistics and reports to demonstrate the bicycle’s more efficient use of hard-to-get rubber. The Bicycle Manufacturers Association of America wrote to the OPA in April of 1942 in a “Preliminary Statement on Relationship of Bicycle to National Defense.” The lobbyists thought the war could alter America’s comparative lack of adult bicycle transportation by “forcing the bicycle forward to a position of importance more commensurate with its current development in other countries.” From this perspective, auto-centricity was abnormal, and “[n]ational defense exigencies promise to end the motor transport interruption in the normal development of the bicycle in the United States.” If automobile travel was to be restricted, “the alternative is individualized transportation with the bicycle. It is cheap in operation. It requires minimum amounts . . . of essential materials per person transported.” A June 15 OPA report concluded that “[i]t would appear that if any new rubber is to be allocated for transportation purposes, it ought to go for bicycles, insofar as bicycles can or will be used, instead of automobile tires.”
On the other hand, the WPB wanted to curtail all new bike manufacture. They were making disturbing assumptions about a war that might last a decade or more, and planning for extreme austerity in which citizens would use up their possessions rather than counting on a supply of new or replacement products. The tires that Americans already had on their cars were thus a strategic reserve, and should be used up or re-capped before any transportation alternatives were manufactured. The Division of Civilian Supply of the WPB recommended a harsh program that opponents in the OPA summarized in a June 27, 1942 memo as “Railroads – no extra facilities . . . Busses – no rubber for new busses . . . Automobile travel [to be] cut 27,000,000 cars to 9,000,000 [or] a cut to 33 1/3 percent of present automobiles. Cut average mileage of remaining cars from 9,000 per year to 5,400 or to 60% . . . Stop manufacture of bicycles.”
This strict WPB vision of wartime transportation did not win out entirely, but it did temper prewar plans. While the Victory Bike program publicly announced in January of 1942 would still continue, the WPB later set the overall production quotas under which it would operate in Limitation Order L-52. Because of the WPB’s decision, production would be far smaller than the 750,000-per-year promised in January, when Leon Henderson’s ride around the mall made national news. The early rhetoric of the Victory Bike and the later reality of limited availability meant that the federal government had a contradictory approach to adult bicycle transportation: promising millions of new bikes at the beginning of 1942, but slowly decreasing (and eventually eliminating) new bicycle production in the months and years that followed. The public never heard about the OPA/WPB debate, though their experience of wartime transportation would be shaped by it; they would never receive the promised 750,000 new bikes per year.
The first public sign of this change came in April of 1942 – just a few months after Leon Henderson’s bike ride and the wave of positive publicity which followed, but still before the OPA/WPB debate over efficiency – when the WPB issued a strict set of emergency regulations, temporarily freezing all bicycle production and sales for civilians. The order was surprisingly draconian; one historian has called it “brutal” ([xxi]). It was a panicky reaction to perceptions of hoarding in the months following the declaration of war, and declared that “no bicycle may leave a factory, a jobber, a wholesaler, or a retailer’s place of business after 11:59 tonight” ([xxii]).
Over the next few months, a series of agency decisions revealed the newly constrained Victory Bike program, culminating in the order which would set the program for its duration. On May 13, the WPB issued a “supplementary directive” to its April freeze, declaring that new bicycles could be purchased by the military and federal government. It delegated the OPA to control civilian sales of whatever bicycles remained under a further “Rationing Order No. 7” on May 15. All of this was regularized in July under a “full-fledged” and slightly renamed “Revised Ration Order 7” (3).
July’s revised order followed January’s promises in broad strokes, but displayed a fundamental change in approach. Under the WPB’s conditions, the order tightened the limitations on bicycle rationing. Notably, the earlier plan for twelve manufacturers was gone; now only two (Huffman and Westfield), would make any new bikes, whether they were for military, Lend-Lease, or civilian use. The cargo-bike model in which Leon Henderson had carried Betty Barret just a few months before was gone too (only one women’s and one men’s design would be authorized for widespread production).
Two separate administrative tools allowed the OPA to selectively limit the distribution of bicycles: a monthly quota of new bicycles available for purchase, set by region and state; and an elaborate system of certificates controlling who could buy the bikes, if indeed any were available ([xxiii]). The reality of wartime control was quickly becoming apparent, even as the rhetoric of cheerful adult bike commuting continued.
Decreasing Monthly Quotas
The internal and inter-agency correspondence preserved in the National Archives demonstrates a restrictive and increasingly-austere rationing program, which never produced the promised number of new bicycles. Rather than the planned federal program to produce new and purpose-built “Victory Bikes” to replace the automobile, the implementation of July 1942’s “Revised Ration Order 7” more closely resembled the philosophy captured in the Depression-era aphorism of “Use it Up, Wear it Out, Make it Do, or Do Without.” Many Americans were denied certificates to purchase new bicycles, the number of available bikes trended steadily downwards, and production for civilian use was completely stopped a full year before the end of the war. Workers would need to rely on public transit and shared cars, buy used bikes, or purchase out of dwindling stocks of already-existing bikes.
One sign of this reality can be found in the near-obsessive level of control over new bicycle sales. Throughout most of the 26 months of Revised Rationing Order 7, the Washington OPA office set quotas of allocable bikes on a monthly and state-by-state basis; sometimes changing total state availability by a single bike from month to month. Amazingly, OPA field offices broke the regional and state allocations down into even smaller amounts, dividing them up between county and city rationing boards, themselves staffed by citizen volunteers who issued certification of wartime need for each and every new bike that was purchased.
The most obvious sign that the Victory Bike was not going to fulfill the optimistic promises of earlier coverage came from the stark reality depicted in Figure 2. During the 26 months of the program, the national quota trended downwards over time, eventually ending at zero in September of 1944. There was nuance here: some declines were small, and in a few instances, quotas were increased by a few percent or re-allocated among districts or states. Because of a severe gasoline shortage, quotas were temporarily lifted for the eastern seaboard from June to September of 1943. But overall, there was no possibility that the nation could meet the widely-cited promise of 750,000 new bicycles per year.
Throughout the war, the national quota trended downward, with multiple instances of sharp declines. These include the false start of July of 1942, when the first nationally-issued quotas were retroactively cut by more than three-quarters immediately after the program began. The New York Times, in a story headlined “Output of Bicycles Cut Sharply by WPB,” warned ominously that “the reduction announced today sets the quota for July alone at 25 per cent of the amount that had previously been announced as available for July and August together” ([xxiv]). Other cutbacks included November of 1943, which saw quotas reduced to one-third of the previous month; the national total never fully recovered, with only 7,500 new bicycles available for purchase nationwide in both February and March of 1944. This was just months before production of new civilian bicycles ended completely in September of 1944, even though the war continued until September of 1945. In the entire last year of the war, no new adult bicycles were made for civilians, and none remained in reserve. The American bicycle industry was, in effect, zeroed out by the federal government long before the war came to an end.
While dramatic, even the declining national quota doesn’t tell the full story of rationing. In effect, it shows the maximum number of bikes that couldbe sold out of new production and reserves; not the number that were actuallysold. A different mechanism of control limited that amount; even if a bike was manufactured and shipped to a retailer in a specific state, it could not be sold to a consumer unless they had a proper wartime need and the certificate to prove it. A July 9, 1942 “Information Bulletin No. 1” outlines these restrictions: certificates were limited to the gainfully employed and war workers who needed to travel at least three days a week, those who had not recently purchased a bike and “those individuals who demonstrate that they will use the bicycle for needed transportation.” The complexity of the paperwork was impressive: if the local rationing board was satisfied that a person really needed a new bike, “the Board issues him a Certificate, which is divided into Parts A, B, and C.” Part C was proof of need, which stayed with the purchaser. Part A went to the national inventory unit. Part B stayed with the shopkeeper, who would hand collected certificates over to re-sellers or warehouses when the shop needed new stock; the re-seller in turn had to present the collected certificates to manufacturers in order to restock their own inventory. Literally every individual bicycle, and every single transaction, was controlled in this “flow-back” system.
In practice, the number of issued certificates lagged the allocable number of bikes throughout the war. An October 28, 1942 memo addressed this, noting that “Release of bicycles in practically every county have been far below the monthly order . . . there is some evidence that many local boards have been disinterested in bicycles, have been too busy to give proper attention to bicycle applications” or had been especially punctilious in applying the already-restrictive limits on who could receive a certificate. This was partly intentional; it was a technique OPA used across its programs to discourage overconsumption, which one former administrator called “regulation by impedimenta.” It was felt that “difficulties of getting a certificate (the right to buy)[;] the belief that they probably could not get one anyway, kept many people from trying to get one.” In fact, “[s]ome of the rationing officials invented an aphorism . . . ‘The meek shall inherit the dearth’” (23). This lag continued for the duration: “[I]t is especially interesting to note that bicycle certificate issuance has never approached absorbing our quotas,” wrote an OPA administrator at the beginning of 1944, while arguing that the program should be discontinued since new production had been largely eliminated. There was no need to ration something that wasn’t available, and for which public demand had been discouraged through the complexities of the certificate process.
The quota was one thing; the number of issued certificates another; and the number of actual new bicycles manufactured yet a third. And that number was alarmingly small. Keeping in mind the early 1942 public prediction of 750,000 bikes per year, the decision by the WPB in Limitation Order L-52 is stark: on October 16, 1942, an internal memo noted that the order “Restricts the manufacture of new bicycles to 10,000 per month.” Furthermore, “it is doubtful if the full 10,000 monthly production ticket assigned . . . will be met because [the manufacturers] will not secure the required amounts of steel.”
This limitation on manufacture explains why the 1943 national monthly quotas were in the tens of thousands, and why the two authorized manufacturers reported a total of only154,586 new bicycles built for both civilian and military use for allof 1943. One internal letter, from March 4 of 1944, reports total production from 1943 for each of the two manufacturing companies broken down by end users. The totals are surprisingly low: 57,755 from the Dayton, Ohio-based Huffman company for the entire year, only 39,068 of which were released by WPB for OPA distribution to civilians. Together, Huffman and Westfield produced 95,913 adult bicycles for civilians in all of 1943 – or, a dismal 13 percent of the 750,000 originally promised. The Victory Bike program, as implemented, barely existed.
Increased Regional Control
A compilation of the monthly rationing quotas by region supports this finding of an increasingly restrictive national quota. Figure 3 presents a first-ever synthesis of monthly press releases collected in the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, with OPA Region III and Region VI records in the Chicago Regional Archives. While some stretches of time (October, 1943 and February-March 1944) require reconstruction or extrapolation, this analysis demonstrates a continuous downward trend.
The regional records also offer a Midwestern case study showing what increasingly-restrictive rationing meant on the ground. For February of 1944 — with a national quota of only 7,500 bicycles — the seven states of Region VI had just 860 bicycles to divvy up amongst themselves. That month the 127 rationing boards of Cook County, Illinois had just 46 new bikes to distribute among more than four million residents; a preposterous one bike for every 87,000 people.
This analysis depicts a much more restrictive bicycle rationing program than recalled in historical memory, with concomitant negative impacts on bicycle industry and the popular perception of practical riding. While journalistic coverage in wartime was generally supportive of rationing efforts, family and oral history accounts – many self-published in the last several decades — can fill in missing dissent and complaints about skimpy wartime bikes. One memoir recalls that “[t]he only way to get a bicycle [sic] you had to accept what they called a ‘victory bike’, that didn’t have any more metal than absolutely was necessary” ([xxv]). Another remembers the Victory Bike as a parental punishment for willfulness in demanding a present: “The bicycle I received on my tenth Christmas was a ‘Victory Bike,’ The war was going on in that year, and new bikes were basic – no fenders, narrow air tires, sharp banana-style seats, no features. The fact that I got a bike at all during the war was fairly remarkable, but when Dad made up his mind that a lesson would be learned, it was learned.” ([xxvi]). Memories of a small town in Oregon lump the Victory Bike in with gas rationing and hoarding, after which “clothing took the next hit with the introduction of the cuffless, pleatless, lapelless ‘victory suit.’ The fat-tired, heavy-fendered Schwinn bikes we were so used to were replaced with the stripped-down ‘victory bike’” ([xxvii]).
The wartime public’s discontent with rationing can also be seen in the letters they wrote to their rationing boards and the OPA. Hundreds of these remain in the National Archives, documenting demands from industry attorneys, complaints from bike shop owners, appeals from schoolchildren, and requests for special treatment. “I’m a man of 60 years old and am helping out the farmers with their work,” read a July 8, 1942 appeal from Wawaka, Indiana: “I have no car and have been unable to buy a second-hand bicycle.” An OPA State Director wrote on June 23, 1942 to ask for extenuating circumstances for a young man’s physical therapy; the OPA assistant General Counsel denied the request, finding that “he is not entitled to acquire a new adult bicycle.” From Maryland, an ordained minister asked for a new bicycle; handwritten notes hint at denial. Defense firms had better luck: letters from General Electric and General Motors got immediate responses.
The impact on bicycle manufacturers also resulted in discontent, though wartime dissent was diplomatically phrased. The Schwinn corporation of Chicago, Illinois spent the war producing shells and metal fittings for weapons and aircraft. Still, it appealed – unsuccessfully — to the OPA in 1943 to produce bike repair parts, summarizing an “impartial survey” (emphasis in original) of the 2,450 dealers who were asking for them. The wording was careful to avoid unpatriotic profit-motives: “We know that the necessity for – as well as the desirability of ‘keeping ‘em rolling’, is a decision which rests entirely with the properly appointed officials,” it reads. “For our part, we . . . respectfully urge that we be granted relief to the end that we may supply the cycle repair parts . . .We urge this since the bike repair shops are vital to the use of cyclists for war time transportation.”
By 1945, as the company was preparing for postwar production, Vice President Frank W. Schwinn asked for help. He called the outlook for the bicycle industry “extremely serious.” His report estimated that many of the company’s existing sales outlets had “closed their doors,” before complaining the Victory Bike manufacturer Westfield would have an unfair advantage when consumer sales re-started because it had been “favored” by the government. “Our problems are further complicated by the fact that our losses in sales outlets have assumed alarming proportions and our remaining sales outlets have virtually no stock,” Schwinn wrote. “We do not feel that we, and other equally patriotic [firms] . . . should be abandoned and left helpless in the hands of competitors in the desperate struggle for survival.” There is no recorded response. In the coming decades, as Americans turned to auto-centric suburban living and a reduced number of manufacturers focused on the children’s market, postwar adult cycling “subsided” in the United States – a reality documented by many observers.
This comparison of the rhetoric and popular understanding of the Victory Bike program with the internal records of actual production demonstrates conflicts and contradictions. The implementation of strict rationing, combined with limited production, conflicted with the belief that the bicycle would provide essential transportation. This conflict was obvious to government officials even as they proceeded: a July 24, 1942 letter from one OPA administrator noted that “production for civilian uses virtually will cease” under WPB limitations. He ruminated on the strange disconnect between the bicycle’s popularity and the WPB’s decisions: “In this generation in the United States, this is an unusual situation. The bicycle is being put to new uses hardly to be imagined a year ago . . . Workers in defense plants and in occupations essential to the community welfare are finding bicycles the most convenient, and in some instances, the only, means of transportation.” The whiplash between the idea of needed transportation and limited availability was confusing: “The change has been so sudden and so general, it is difficult to determine just how essential the bicycle is to the war effort.”
In the end, production limits made continued rationing pointless. On September 23, 1944, a press release announced that “Rationing of bicycles was ended today.” OPA Administrator Chester Bowles explained that “rationing now serves little useful purpose . . . now the stockpile is gone, and current production is too low to make it worthwhile to burden our War Price and Rationing Boards and the public with rationing.” Bowles concluded that “bicycles, which some people expected would play a very important part in our wartime transportation, have actually had a negligible impact on the over-all transportation problem.” It’s no wonder; there were so few new bikes they could not replace other modes.
This paper argues that the reality of the Victory Bike is too contradictory to be remembered uncritically. While the original goals and conceptualization of the program is attractive for advocates of bicycle transportation’s utility and efficiency, the wartime implementation of bicycle rationing was far from early promises, and most likely limited the ability of adult bicycle commuting to adequately substitute for automobile trips. The most significant federal policy intervention in bicycle transportation in the 20thcentury did not actually promote adult bicycling: it asked for adults to ride as a wartime sacrifice, but then throttled the supply of the new bicycles needed to support that strategic goal. The history of American bicycling should portray the Victory Bike as a defeat for the viability of adult bicycle transportation, one that contributed to hobbling the feasibility of expanding bicycle mode share in the decades after the war.
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[viii]. McCall, R. And We’ll Look Sweet Upon the Seat of a Bicycle Built for Two. Washington Post,March 29, 1942, p. B2.
[ix]. Editorial. New York Sun, January 16, 1942, p. 24.
[x]. ‘Victory’ Bicycles Are Planned for Adult Use. Geneva, New York Daily Times, January 17, 1942, p. 4.
[xi]. Business & Finance. Time, January 12, 1942, p. 68.
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[xiii]. Stinnett, J. Washington Daybook. Prescott Evening Courier,January 28, 1942, p. 4.
[xiv]. Victory Bike to Replace Auto. Social Justice, February 9, 1942, p. 13.
[xvi]. Peterson, S. J. Planning the Home Front: Building Bombers and Communities at Willow Run. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2013.
[xvii]. Bureau of Demobilization. Industrial Mobilization for War: History of the War Production Board and Predecessor Agencies, 1940-1945, Washington, D.C., USGPO, 1947.
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[xxii]. Sale of Bicycles to Adults Curbed. New York Times, April 3, 1942, p. 1.
[xxiv]. Output of Bicycles Cut Sharply by WPB. New York Times, July 17, 1942, p. 27.
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