Thursday night I caught the opening of an exhibit at the Lisa M. Reisman Gallery called Velo + City: The Social History of the Bicycle. This thing was very well publicized (I caught glimpses of flyers in several of my favorite places) and with such a catchy title, how could I refuse?

Now as sort of a nerd, I really love exhibits in "art" galleries that include history lessons or scientific fact or any sort of decidedly non-art context. I think the two genres of information, art and history--though not that combination of the two, art history--when presented together can create a deeper, more comprehensive experience than either taken alone. Not for all art shows, of course, but for many, like this one, it really does the trick. For the show was composed of prints and posters for bicycle companies, rare ones, some worth several thousands of dollars. They were brightly colored and usually involving beautiful ladies, illustrated in the style of art nouveau and screened by hand. And while the posters stand sturdily on their own the addition of the social history, as told through placards littered throughout the posters themselves, really makes it more an exhibit and less a catalogue of prints. The prints then represent distinct eras within a chronology that, though missing examples from several crucial periods, tells the story of the beloved bicycle over the last century and a half. And I don't mean to spoil any of it for you, but the tale from start to finish is all romance.

Marque George Richard/Cycles & Automobiles, 1899

The opening was really well attended! We rolled up to a crowd spilling out into a tiny tiny block of South Rittenhouse Square Street, messengers and old timers and afficionados and hippy do-gooder types all mixed in together. There was lots of food, delicious madeleines and tasty beer. There was a delightfully extraordinary band playing music that made you feel like it might not be 2008. It might by 1908. And they also gave out favors! Blinky Lights!

As I mentioned, women were prominently featured in several of the ads. I learned that in the early days of the bicycle, the independence it afforded young ladies combined with its early reputation for being a bit pornographic made it a tough sell to women in general. A deluge of advertising illuminating the virtue and femininity of the machine resulted, and by the turn of the century women comprised 1/3 of the market for bicycles. That's the only history you're gettting for free! Go see the rest of it for yourself. Up for another month, Tuesday through Sunday from 10-7.

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