Lexicographer Eric Partridge was an intriguing figure. Born in New Zealand, he was educated in Queensland, Australia, served in the First World War and finished his studies at Balliol College, Oxford. He would spent the rest of his life in Britain, working as a researcher and lecturer. The Library of the British Museum (now: British Library) became his second home. Always seated at the same desk (K1), he produced numerous books on the English language.
A surprising aspect of this unassuming man’s career was his interest in slang and offbeat language (which apparently was rooted in his wartime experiences), culminating in 1937 with the publication of a Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. From this rich offering of linguistic treasures, many words have been “dropped” over time or changed their original meaning.
We tend to assume today that because of social media new (slang) terms are transmitted around the world in record time. That may be true. Etymologists, however, have always been aware of the swift introduction, spread and passing of such words. One of those is “scorcher.” Once a hotly debated Anglo-American concept of the 1890s, the term quickly lost its relevance (its present meaning is entirely different) and was not included in Partridge’s Dictionary.
Nineteenth century social commentators were deeply concerned that the noxious conditions and pressures of city-life would lead to a decline in bodily and mental health. Social Darwinists fanned fears that a horde of degenerates was dragging down civilized society into biological decay. The “survival of the un-fittest” was a peril that had to be confronted. Sport, gymnastics and out-of-door activities provided one solution in the battle for regeneration.
Cycling was seen as an exertion that benefited the emerging dogma of exercise. It offered physical well-being and spiritual refreshment to unhealthy and fatigued (middle-class) city dwellers. Physicians stressed the bike’s curative powers. Pushing the pedals – they claimed – improves digestion; strengthens muscles and heart; reduces rheumatism, gout or hernia; lessens obesity; and calms the nerves.
The rage for cycling had its opponents too. In Britain, the “outrage” of uncontrolled bikers was widely discussed in the press. Critics hated the presence of such maniacs on public roads. One adversary sent a letter to The Times of London (1892), in which he described a group of scorchers descending a hill “like a horde of Apaches or Sioux Indians, conches shrieking and bells going; and woe betide the luckless man or aught else coming in their way.”
The emotionally loaded term spread fast. A scorcher was a cyclist who rode his/her bike aggressively at high speed in public spaces risking crashes with fellow riders, pedestrians or other users of the road. Since bicycles of the day either had either no or else poor brakes, accidents were reported frequently. A scorcher was a reckless two-wheeled speed merchant.
By November 1895 the word had crossed the Atlantic when an indignant reader of the New York Times submitted a letter of complaint to the editor about the hazard of cyclists racing each other on Manhattan’s streets, sidewalks and avenues. Hoodlums ‘scorching … with heads down’ were a menace to pedestrians.
The Upper West Side was particularly popular with competing cyclists. From Columbus Circle to Grant’s Tomb on Riverside Drive, the district’s broad avenues were packed with riders who turned the roads into makeshift velodromes. New York’s pedestrians demanded protection and stricter law enforcement. The presence of scorchers, not just young males but ‘wild’ women as well, had to be curtailed.
The bike was a symbol of the New Woman, an agent for change and a tool of emancipation. Riding a bike was a statement of self-reliance and independence. As traditional dress hampered free movement, outfits were adjusted and streamlined, infuriating traditionalists. Women on wheels wearing bloomers and skimpy garments were accused of outraging public decency. Calling a woman bicyclist a scorcher had profoundly negative and sexist connotations.
Health warnings were issued to women who had fallen for the ‘wheeling’ mania. Cycling, it was suggested, came at a price. Young women risked losing their femininity by developing a “Bicycle Face” (flushed face with dark circles under bulging eyes). Medical magazines and popular press reports raised warnings about the danger of infertility. To hard-line moralists the bicycle seat spelled loose morals which, in the worst cases, would lead to prostitution.
The criticism of female bicyclists as rebellious and unrespectable diminished by the mid-1890s as more and more women took to the road. The trend is reflected in a number of songs that during the decade were inspired by lady scorchers in particular (ragtime was the perfect genre to reflect the biker’s rhythmic movement).
On January 1st, 1895, Republican politician William Lafayette Strong was appointed New York City’s 90th Mayor. A reform-minded leader, he invited Theodore Roosevelt to take on the role of Police Commissioner with a brief to eliminate corruption amongst the ranks and make the police department a more professional unit. William Strong’s choice of candidate was well-considered. Roosevelt had served the previous six years on the Civil Service Commission fighting favoritism and nepotism in federal nominations.
For Roosevelt this appointment was an opportunity to impose his presence in the political arena. Cleaning up New York would strengthen his political clout. During his two-year spell as Police Commissioner, he set out to implement a series of structural reforms and innovations.
As President of the Board of Commissioners, he shook up the police force by enforcing regular inspections of firearms, appointing recruits based on their physical and mental suitability rather than political affiliation, closing corrupt stations and introducing a range of service awards and medals. He was also the first official to employ a female member of police staff.
During his tenure in New York, Roosevelt’s right-hand man was a former military man named Avery Delano Andrews. The latter was also a cycling enthusiast. Concerned about the long hours and heavy workload that officers had to face in an ever-expanding city, he suggested to put policemen on bicycles to quicken up response time and release the fatigue caused by lengthy foot patrols.
Roosevelt was initially skeptical about the idea, but in the end the Board relented and agreed to begin a trial period with a squad of four officers on bikes, all of them former champions or experienced cyclists. The officers wore uniforms with eye-catching yellow leggings, nautical caps and long (winter) coats. They were instructed to reel in and fine “scorchers,” chase down drunk drivers, guide traffic where needed and protect female cyclists (even if in bloomers) from insults and cat calls.
The squad was led by Brooklyn-born Charles Minthorn Murphy. A record-holding cyclist, he was the first person to race a mile in less than a minute. The feat took place between Farmingdale and Babylon on Long Island on June 30th, 1899. He finished the distance 57.8 seconds, a time he achieved by slip-streaming behind a railroad boxcar. Acknowledged as the world’s fastest man on wheels, he became known as Charles “Mile a Minute” Murphy.
The policing trial proved to be a resounding success. The squad was so effective that their numbers increased rapidly. In his 1913 Autobiography Theodore Roosevelt looked back with admiration to the achievements of his Bicycle Squad officers, praising them for their “extraordinary proficiency on the wheel” in the battle against scorchers and other law breakers.
King of Speed
As cycling became regulated and a start was made with the laying out of designated bike lanes (the six-mile long Ocean Parkway from Prospect Park, Brooklyn, to Coney Island was the first of such paths where scorchers would be stopped and fined for speeding), the Squad’s days were numbered. With the arrival of the automobile on the streets of New York, the passion for pace moved from bike to car. The career of one young immigrant encapsulates that change.
On May 20th, 1905, a car race took place at the old Hippodrome in Morris Park, Bronx, in which two renowned drivers named Barney Oldfield and Walter Christie took part. Their presence was overshadowed by a young man driving a ninety-horse powered Fiat who sped around the track at sixty-eight miles per hour, barely slowing down at the curves and taking unbelievable risks. His name was Louis Chevrolet.
Born in December 1878 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, a clock-making centre in the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel, his father’s skill as a watchmaker may have inspired his passion for mechanics and precision engineering. Hit by economic setbacks the large family moved to Beaune, a small town in the Burgundy region of France, when Louis was a child.
Times remained difficult for the family and Louis left school at eleven to take up a job at a local bicycle factory. The job sparked his interest in building and handling speed machines. In 1895, Chevrolet enrolled in the town’s bicycle racing association and success ensued almost immediately. For three years he showed a fierce competitive spirit, clinching numerous victories on the track, earning some much needed prize money to help his struggling family and, at the same time, celebrating a French public obsession with bike racing that Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast would describe as the “driving purity of speed.”
When he was offered a job at the Darracq automobile company near Paris, he did not hesitate to grasp the opportunity. It was his first step towards a dazzling career. Louis moved to New York to work for the French De Dion-Bouton Motorette Company which, located in Brooklyn, began manufacturing cars under license in 1901. The venture was in operation for only one year, but Louis was soon given the opportunity to drive a racing car for Fiat in New York. Between 1905 and 1910, Chevrolet amassed a string of triumphs and records.
His “heroic” driving fame caught the attention of William Durant, the owner of the Buick Company and founder of General Motors in 1908. Louis opened up his first garage in Detroit in 1909 and a year later he partnered with Durant to design his first car. The rest is – as they say – history. The Chevy became an American icon. Chevrolet’s place among racing legends and car makers was secured in 1969 when he was elected to the Automotive Hall of Fame.
Addiction to time was a by-product of the technological explosion of the late nineteenth century. Our obsession with speed began on a bicycle and was intensified with the arrival of motor vehicles. Modernism moved on wheels. Chevrolet and other racing drivers exploited the might of the machine by clocking fast and faster times. Henry Ford’s assembly line increased the pace of production by cutting the completion span of a car from twelve hours to ninety-three minutes. The clock became society’s Supreme Leader.
Illustrations, from above: King of Scorchers advertisement; The Scorcher, sheet music by Michael & Mary Agnes Hayes 1896; The Scorcher, sheet music by George Rosey (real name: George Rosenberg), 1897; The Scorcher, sheet music by Theodore August Metz, 1896; Female Scorcher, Saturday Evening Mail, 1896; members of the New York Scorchers Squad; and Louis Chevrolet in 1916. (Library of Congress).