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A light road-carriage for a single person, originally propelled by the action of the rider in striking the tips of his toes on the road-way, but more commonly now by the action on a bar or pedal which puts in motion the cranked axle of the wheels and causes their revolution.. — Webster, 1882

The other evening as bedtime approached for the two young sons of a local family, the smaller, a lad of six, stood before his father and said: “Father, they say it is dreadful unhealthy for two persons to sleep together, and if you can’t get another bedstead for Bill you’d better sell him and get me a velocipede.” – New York Evening Post, 1874

The velocipede of On the Banks of Plum Creek was probably not a bicycle with pedals, but its forerunner, a two-wheeled conveyance which the rider moved forward by “walking” with the tips of the toes while sitting on the seat between two wheels. It was steered by a handlebar attached to the front wheel. No brakes; you stopped by planting your feet firmly or by coasting to a stop.

Originally called the “pedestrian hobby-horse,” speeds of up to ten miles per hour could be reached on flat surfaces, and long distances could be covered with ease, mainly because much of the rider’s weight was carried by the seat, not by the rider’s legs. The vehicle had first come into use forty or more years before Laura Ingalls lived near Walnut Grove, so it’s no wonder that it had become a children’s riding toy as well as an adult item by then. It’s interesting to note that while in the published On the Banks of Plum Creek, Willie Oleson insists that the girls can’t play with his velocipede, in the manuscript, Laura and Mary and the other girls all rode it, and they played with his jumping-jack as well.

Improvements were always being added to the velocipede, and it wasn’t long before pedals were standard, by which the front wheel was caused to turn, propelling the rider and keeping his or her feet off the ground. The standard bicycle was common in the 1880s in Minnesota and Dakota Territory. As reported in the local newspaper, Carrie Ingalls even had one in De Smet!


velocipede (BPC 22)