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.
By 1898, when the national bicycle manufacturers’ group cancelled its annual trade show, the New York Tribune spotted an opportunity. It launched a push to bring Bicycle Day to the Big Apple. Bike stores could open their doors to the public on a day when most other establishments were closed. (And, not incidentally, the Tribune would offer merchants the chance to advertise their wares in its special sixteen-page supplement.)
“The argument may be advanced that Washington’s Birthday, being a holiday, will not be the best date which could be selected,” the Tribune observed. But, it continued, the date had its advantages. Customers were contemplating new purchases, and the latest models were on the shop floors. “Washington’s Birthday, with its cessation of business usually unaccompanied by any extended ceremonies,” it concluded, provided the perfect opportunity for a sales event.
Nor was the Tribune concerned about the commercialization of the holiday. “Some riders are wondering what the immortal Father of his Country would say could he review the parade as part of his birthday celebration,” the Tribune allowed, “but it is safe to assume that he would be sure to declare, with all lovers of truth, that it was an inspiring and beautiful sight.” Others agreed. One Pennsylvania newspaper praised the Tribune for coming “to the rescue” of Washington’s Birthday, which had “fallen into innocuous desuetude, being seldom observed except by country debating societies.”
Riders prepared for the occasion, including the many women who were taking to the new hobby. “Many new gowns are already ordered and will be worn on Bicycle Day if the weather will permit,” said the Tribune. Illustrations showed one dress made of heavy cheviot, trimmed with bands of leather, and another, of black velvet, “popular for winter-wear.”
Stores competed to attract the crowds. At the Tinkham Cycle Company, for example, the Royal Hungarian Band played, bicycle bells rang, acetylene and electric lamps flashed, and visitors gawked at bikes with three, four, six, or ten seats. Every customer took home a lily bulb to plant; the owner of the handsomest and tallest flower could redeem it for a hundred-dollar bicycle come June.
For several years, the birthday of our first president continued to be observed as Bicycle Day. But after 1900, the bicycle craze abated. Enterprising dealers shifted into newer, more fashionable product lines. Motorcycle stores sprang up between the bike shops, and within a decade, car dealers followed.
And as bicycle-sellers expanded into new product lines, or purveyors of internal-combustion engines moved in alongside them, they adapted their custom of inaugurating the product year every February 22. “The motorcycle people have been open on Washington’s Birthday ever since the day of the bicycle,” wrote the Boston Globe. Auto dealers draped their storefronts in red, white and blue bunting, or pegged their promotions to the first president, wrapping their products in patriotic gauze.
Over the years, the origins of the event became obscured. An early draft of the Uniform Holidays Act of 1971 proposed changing the name of the holiday to Presidents’ Day, which is what a number of states already called it. Although that proposal was stricken from the final bill, the name itself was widely adopted. And many commentators, watching the parade of car-dealer ads every Presidents’ Day, linked such promotions to the broader eclipse of the first president’s birthday.
The holiday works. Every Presidents’ Day weekend, car sales surge by 25 percent.
In some ways, the commercialization of the holiday parallels the conversion of America into a consumers’ republic. Americans gave expression to their freedom by purchasing what they wanted, and above all, by buying devices that promised personal liberty. Bicycles once promised to usher in an age of personal rapid transit, freeing Americans to go wherever they chose. In the twentieth century, cars did the same. And now, in the twenty-first, bike sales are back.
"When the birthday of Washington shall be forgotten,” President James Buchanan said, “liberty will have perished from the earth.” He need not have feared. So long as Americans are still buying wheeled vehicles, they won’t forget the father of our country.