Monthly Archives: October 2010

the mysterious rebecca reilly

I came across Rebecca Reilly’s name in Zack FurnessOne Less Car, where he briefly mentions her as a bike messenger and the author of a book on bike messenger culture in the 1990s. A female bike messenger? Who wrote a book that’s probably available on the internets somewhere? Who is this girl? Buffalo Bill’s short but beautiful 2006 Moving Target article portrays her as a kind of messenger messiah, “making a journey across the United States, visiting cities where there were messengers, living and working in each city in turn.” Meeting her for the first time is “what Erik Zo, SF messenger bag maker, describes as the Great Dispatcher doing a good job,” and Rebecca herself is captivating: “full of enthusiasm, open, big smile, loud voice, words tumbling out of her like water over a fall.” And he calls her “an inspiration to many female messengers, because she stood up to the men, and never asked for special treatment, only to be given the same chance as a man.”

That article points to two reviews of her book, Nerves of Steel, one of which is actually John Greenfield’s 2001 Chicago Reader article reviewing another messenger book released the same year, Travis Culley’s The Immortal Class. While Reilly’s was 8 years in the making, self-published, and had a run of only 1,000 copies, Culley’s book was written in only a year or so and was backed by a major publisher – hence, in the intervening years, his book has gotten considerably more press than hers (though it doesn’t sound as though she was trying to make any money off the book.)

The end of Buffalo Bill’s article also mentions that Reilly joined the Marines in 2001, and a 2004 article by Fred Zimmerman provides less of an insider’s view of Reilly’s book, but retains the admiration so evident in the other reviews I’ve found. Zimmerman traces her courier career from DC to Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and New York as she pursued her two goals of collecting material for her book and travelling around the country. He quotes Reilly saying that “I could have been a secretary, but if it’s a girl’s job I don’t want it,” and that, because she was one of the few couriers who travelled the country, they called her the “messenger for the messengers.” It’s an interesting article, with more personal information than inside scoop, but I still wanted to know: what kind of woman travels around the country doing a ridiculously hard job at least as good as a man, makes friends everywhere she goes, and writes a book about her culture not to profit but to document her own and her friends’ lives so that readers will understand who they are? Who is she?

Although I have yet to meet her, two more finds make her much more human. In 1995, an anthropologist named Rachel Strickland made a short video of Reilly as part of her Portable Portraits/Portable Environments project – because Strickland is interested in what people carry around with them all day, the video has Reilly going through her bag and showing what she carries, and if you know that she’s eventually going to publish a book, seeing the notebook where she writes down people’s stories makes you smile.

Also, both Greenfield and Zimmerman mention that Reilly got her start in DC, and since she would have been riding in DC in the early or mid-nineties, I texted a friend who also started messengering in DC around then. “You ever heard of a messenger called Rebecca Reilly or lambchop?” I asked. “Yeah,” came the reply, “Lambchop is old school original gangsta fixed gear queen!” A few weeks later, over beers, he said he still talks to her occasionally, and that she’s still in the military and is somewhere near DC – which, since the most recent thing I could find on her was from 2007, was a relief to hear. That settled it. I went to Amazon to see if her book was available for sale, and sure enough it was – from Reilly herself, at a third of the price other dealers were asking. Of course. I’m looking forward to reading it when it gets here. 🙂

*Nerves of Steel cover from Howard Williams’ 2002 review in the San Francisco Call.

American Quarterly and the Bicycle

So oddly, American Quarterly (the main literary journal us American Studies folks publish in) only has three articles referring to women and bicycles. Having read a study a little while ago about how they have few to no articles referring to social class, more articles on gender, and a ton of articles on race, I guess I’m not super duper surprised – the studies of bikes that I’ve seen so far tend to focus first on the object, second on its class or gender implications, and rarely (if at all) on its racial implications. (Scrapper bikes and low-riders would be awesome case studies in this regard.) Also, from what I can tell, the vast majority of bike literature is more in the engineering and social science disciplines than in cultural studies. Hence, few bikes in AQ. However, the articles they have published provide some interesting food for thought, especially if you’re into the whole history/lit/cultural studies angle. Briefly:

Robert E. Riegel, “Women’s Clothes and Women’s Rights,” AQ 15:3 (Autumn 1963), 390-401

Published in 1963, Riegel’s article is a bit dated today. His writing clearly bears the mark of the Mad Men era: though the article focuses on women’s dress reform from the 1840s to the 1920s or so, he often lapses into using “man” as a universal category, and his conclusion, that dress reform, though necessary for health reasons, had little to do with women’s emancipation or suffrage, is both somewhat misogynistic and arguably incorrect. (Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Frances Willard would doubtless argue with him on that point.) Further, while his topic and sources speak to an interdisciplinary American Studies mindset, his method is still pretty old-school historical. He takes a topic, women’s dress reform, and traces it through letters and magazine articles from the period, but except for a brief mention of bicycles he ignores anything else that might have been going on at the same time – and I imagine stuff like the Civil War (which he claims had nothing to do with dress reform), the Industrial Revolution, the Arts and Crafts movement, the bicycle craze, World War I, etc., had at least something to do with what women wore and why.

One thing he does do well, however, is provide details. While we’re not given much cultural context for different dress styles (see above), he does describe the garments in great detail, and he provides enough information about the cultural response to each reform to show just how culturally entrenched women’s attire was and how very difficult it would have been to change it. He also maps out a field of study and (however unintentionally) points out huge gaping holes to be filled in by other historians with different sources, different theoretical mindsets, and different methods.

James J. Flink, “Three Stages of American Automobile Consciousness,” AQ 24:4 (Oct 1972), 451-473

From what I can tell, Flink is a pretty important guy as far as transportation and automobile studies in the US go. His 1990 book The Automobile Age is on my short list – Margaret Walsh and Zack Furness both cite him, and, hey, my thesis advisor strongly suggested him as well. Although this article is almost 40 years old and belies a touch of the old American Studies exceptionalist overtones, its Marxist methodology and emphasis on technology ring strangely true today (though hey, it could just be that I’m easily swayed by overcomplicated language. Who knows.)

Flink argues that Americans’ relationship with cars is an intrinsic part of our national identity, and he divides the American “automobile consciousness” into three historical parts: the rapid adoption of automobiles into American attitudes and homes (mostly thanks to Henry Ford); the “mass idolization of the motorcar” that allowed it to transform our lives and landscapes, and the realization, beginning in the late 1950s, that the car was less a personal mobility solution than a huge social problem. (451-2) The bicycle fits into the first stage, as it “made the average man aware of the possibilities of individualized, long-distance highway transportation, creating a demand that neither the horse nor the railroad could satisfy.” (453) He then provides a fascinating cultural analysis of the relationship between stereotypical American values, economics, and the domination of the car in American culture, and alludes several times to the US as a “culture that has invariably preferred technological to political solutions to its problems.” (455)

While his analysis is a bit too teleological for my taste (um, domination by cars is not inevitable), it’s definitely interesting, and it has provided a starting point for many a mobility scholar (particularly Furness, who argues that if bikes provided the same advantages as cars, maybe we should look at bikes more closely.)

Ellen Gruber Garvey, “Reframing the Bicycle: Advertising-Supported Magazines and Scorching Women,” AQ 47:1 (March 1995), 66-101

Working with a much smaller time frame than either Riegel or Flink and from a vastly different paradigm, Garvey’s piece has that awesome mid-nineties postmod flavor of arriving at answers by asking a lot of questions. Her article focuses specifically on the bike craze of the 1890s, and even more specifically on the interplay between advertising and bicycle fiction in 1890s magazines – and, more specifically than that, on what that interplay had to say about women and bicycling. Many accounts of the relationship between feminism and bicycles in the 1890s that I’ve read tend to link bikes to the more political writings of the major feminist writers: Frances Willard, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, etc. (Check out this article for a really interesting example.) Garvey instead links bikes and feminism to the development of mass culture, and she convincingly argues that, depending on whether bike companies provided a major source of revenue for the magazine, the figure of the bicycling woman could either support or subvert the “natural” gender order. Tying her analysis of the bicycle’s role in constructing/disrupting the gender hierarchy to an economic base adds a level of complexity (and reality) to her argument and makes her study of the bicycle in the 1890s a hell of a lot more relevant.

All three articles provide very interesting and very different takes on the role of the bicycle and its relationship to women in the US. The fact that 1995 was the last time AQ published an article about bicycles – and that we’re more than a little beyond the postmodernist paradigm – hopefully means that the time is ripe for another look at the topic. 🙂

* graphic from “Standard Columbia Ordinary Bicycle,” the Smithsonian’s America on the Move exhibition at the National Museum of American History, here.

Bicycle Institute of America and "Bicycle and Trick Riders"

Have been looking for, among other things, the elusive 1890s bike pin-up cards heading each chapter of Robert A. Smith’s thoroughly-researched and very interesting A Social History of the Bicycle (1972). He credits them to the Bicycle Institute of America, an industry mouthpiece that performed such diverse tasks as tracking bike sales, collecting information on the history of the bicycle, and publishing pamphlets relating to safety and bike advocacy. They’re often cited as experts by magazines like Popular Mechanic and Popular Science in the 1960s (see “Start Something in Your Town: Teach Bicyclists How to Live,” PM May 1958, “Look What’s Happening to Bicycles,” PS Aug 1965, “Only One Wheel to a Customer,” PS Jun 1967, all available online), with sales figures and bike ridership numbers attributed to their director of information, James Hayes, in the 1965 article. They are also cited, though somewhat more cynically, in John Forester’s Bicycle Transportation: A Handbook for Cycling Transportation Engineers (1994), as the successor group to the Bicycle Manufacturers of America and as an organization that believes that “constructing bikeways is the best way to generate sales of bicycles.” Strangely, however, though Forester’s account seems to have the organization alive and well in the mid-1990s, they’ve apparently gone defunct since then, and I have yet to find any record of where their archives might have gone or who might have been involved with them since the 1970s.

Nevertheless, google prevails: as it turns out, the cards are part of a series of cards issued by the American Tobacco Company in the early 1890s called “Bicycle and Trick Riders” (See Ben Crane, “Bicycle and Trick Riders,” here.) You can look through them here.

*Picture above, “Riding Backward,” is from the slideshow on Crane’s page.