Salt and Pepper: Amsterdam and bicycles (part 1. The 1800s)

Everyone who has visited Amsterdam has a story about bicycles. The city is synonymous with the two wheel, pedal powered machines. Every travel blog and travel website mentions bikes. Some are immediately enamoured others feel threatened, telling stories of the inability to safely negotiate Amsterdam’s streets. No photo album of the city is without a photo of a bike, some have more than 100 photos just of bikes! When you first enter the city by train, plane or automobile you are confronted with thousands of the two wheel transporters. This is a topic from which, When In Amsterdam can’t get away.

Instead of trying to compile a Top 5 list, compressing information into one posting. The approach to bicycles in Amsterdam is going to be gradual, leisurely and interactive.  We are going to start at the beginning and provide you time to digest and allow feedback.  If you have a bicycle experience or a story to do with the Dutch or Amsterdam join the conversation. Let us start the exploration of this phenomenon where not many do, at the beginning.

Early History of bicycles

Bikes burst onto the European stage in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Historians argue as to who should be credited with placing two wheels beneath a human being. Irregardless, the first bikes were made of wood with no pedals.  Such a machine was brought to the Paris exposition in 1818 by a German whom described his contraption as a running machine. Historians do agree that the first modern bicycle with pedals and a crank was patented in 1861 by Ernest Michaux, a Frenchman who owned a coach making company.


The design soon came to the United States through an employee of Michaux, Pierre Lallement. Pierre patented the model known as the ‘Boneshaker’ in the States. During the 1870s and 1880s metal work improved and models like the Penny Farthing became popular among the rich of Europe and the US.

Early bicycle history Amsterdam

In Amsterdam the first pioneer to establish a bike shop was J.T. Scholte who was also the agent for Timmer. Timmer set up the first bike rental company in Amsterdam and would conduct learn to ride activities. Scholte was a metal worker and sold a Boneshaker model through Timmer to another metal worker Henricus Burgers who started to make his own bikes. These men are celebrated as the pioneers of bicycles in the Netherlands.

In 1883, the General Dutch Cyclists Union (ANWB) was established. Today this is also the national automotive association. The ANWB is credited with positioning the bike within the national identity. During the late 1800s the Netherlands was struggling with industrialisation, the economy was slow. Mass emigration to the US was taking place and the population were creating its own pillars of support. Catholics, Protestants and Socialists are examples of groups that were looking after their own communities. The poor economy also meant that the rich, poor disparity was great.  

The ANWB through a country wide advertising campaign used cycling to unite the Dutch. Values of independence, discipline and consistency were identified as national characteristics. These values needed to be preserved during a period of uncertainty. In 1896 they launched the ‘Everyone on a bike’ campaign.
Bicycles were the answer to change and modernity. Touring the country was a way to reconnect with one’s country and reinforce the national identity. The car was about speed. The bike was about getting in touch with the landscape and its people. The bike was positioned as a symbol of the people for the people. See the pictures of Dutch and Amsterdam royalty on bikes.
Queen on a bike

Football King on a bike

Crown Prince and family on bikes

Entering the 1900s demand for bicycles was high. Farmers, postmen and even the army gave up their horses and jumped on bikes. The Dutch army had a battalion of bicycles that were mounted with machine guns.

The combination of a flat country, weak economy, diverging social identity and the industrial revolution meant that the Netherlands needed a symbol of unity. The answer was the bicycle.

Join the conversation. How have bicycles changed your life? Do you have any interesting stories of the Dutch, Amsterdam and bicycles?

Stay posted for Part 2 Salt and Pepper: Amsterdam and bikes: first half of the 20th Century

To see bike related pictures of the Dutch in the 1800s have a look at the following link:

Other useful links found were:
Cycling in Amsterdam: Policies and Development
Ebert, Anne-Katrin. Cycling Towards a Nation: the use of bicycle in Germany and the Netherlands 1880-1940.
Blog on History of Burgers
Wikipedia- Amsterdam
Global Rankings web site