Fashion, Freedom, and Function: Women and Bicycles, Part 1

Photo: Creative Commons from the collection of Montana State University Library, modified with text by Melanie Meadors

This post is the first in my new series about women and bicycles at the turn of the twentieth century. The 1890s saw what was called a “bicycle craze” among women. What was this about? Why women, and why then? Was the bicycle movement just fashion, or did it really lead to more freedom for women? I’m hoping this series will not only answer these questions, but pique people’s interest to learn more.

In an 1896 interview for the New York Sunday World, the infamous woman reporter Nelly Bly asked famed suffragist Susan B. Anthony what she thought about bicycling, particularly the fact that women were now taking up a hobby once dominated by men. Anthony responded, “I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world…It gives woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. It makes her feel as if she were independent. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” The image of women riding freely on their bicycles, in defiance of social standards that came before, escaping from a life of being stuck at home or under the guard of chaperones does seem refreshing, and indeed, the image is an accurate one. Bicycles did allow women more freedom in the 1890s than they had in the past. Which women, however, did it free, and were these women oppressed to begin with? If not bicycles, would they have just latched on to something else to “liberate” them? In truth, the bicycle was a symbol of both fashion and freedom that crossed class lines, that went beyond consumerism and frivolity to become an emblem of escape not only from patriarchy, but from the struggles of the lower class as well.

Image: Public Domain

Throughout history, people have desired to propel themselves in ways above and beyond their own two feet. Perhaps the most notable ancient example of this is the myth of Icarus and Daedalus, who built wings so they could fly under the power of their own arms. Though the technology of the wheel and wheeled vehicles came about long ago, with some evidence pointing to the use of such things in ancient Mesopotamia in 3500 BCE, it wasn’t until the very late 18th century that even a rudimentary vehicle propelled by a man himself was made viable. This contraption, called a velocipede or hobby horse, consisted of a board between two wheels with a seat in the middle. The wheels were shod with metal, more like wagon wheels of the time than the rubber tires we’re used to today. A person would push off the ground with his feet, alternating between them, and propel himself forward, almost like running. There were no brakes, and there was no steering mechanism. The driver could only lean side to side to change direction. Many men enjoyed using them in England and France, even using them in races, though their popularity was limited by people hurting themselves trying to lift the heavy machines, even to the point of rupturing their groins. These vehicles were dangerous to ride, as well, and accidents happened regularly.

Historical literature makes little mention of women riding these velocipedes, and the only place a woman can be seen in artwork of the time is riding on the back of a three-wheeled version, where a man is powering the front of the machine and she is sitting in a chair perched over the back two wheels. Various other modifications were made to these vehicles, but none that made them safe, easy, or a pleasure to ride. They fell out of style relatively quickly.

Some people continued to make design changes, however, and over the years various things like pedals and cranks, different saddles, handlebars, and different sizes of wheels were developed. In the 1860s, “boneshakers” became popular for a short time among the college men of Harvard and Yale in particular, but again, they were not very practical. As their name suggests, they vibrated a great deal, enough to cause injury to riders, and there were issues with the weight of the machine making it hard to pedal. Once cities in the United States started to pass laws to prevent these vehicles from riding on the smoother sidewalks, limiting them to the roughly paved roads, they became almost unrideable for many, and once more, they fell out of fashion.

Photo: Agnieszka Kwiecień, Creative Commons

Finally, in 1871, a bicycle, as they finally came to be called, was marketed that seemed to solve many of the issues of the boneshakers and velocipedes. Safety, maneuverability, power, and some of the vibration issues were corrected by increasing the size of the front wheel and decreasing the size of the back. Some models had rubber-lined tires rather than the metal previously used. This model of bicycle, called the ordinary, was still difficult to use, and men would see it as a symbol of their strength and status to be able to ride one. It was common in England for men to ride them to impress others, especially young ladies. This is, however, the extent mention of women’s role in bicycling to this point. The riders of the ordinaries were very predominantly men, some sources going so far as to describe cycling as “all-male,” and “inaccessible to women.” Why might this have been so?

Part might have been the positions riders had to take to ride a bicycle. Wearing dresses and riding a high ordinary would not have been modest for a woman at the time. As mentioned previously, there was also the safety factor. Not only were bicycles at that time cumbersome, heavy, and somewhat complicated to ride, but conditions on the streets were perilous. It was ordinary practice in many places to dump debris onto the street, which created hazards for riders. Roads in England, France, and the United States were riddled with holes and ruts. These dangers, however, were nothing compared to those posed by other people.

In the 1870s, when popular bicycling was still new, there was a fair amount of anti-bicycle sentimentality on the roads which well could have led to women’s hesitation to ride. People didn’t just complain about bicycles or mock the riders. They went so far as to throw things at riders, poke sticks through the spokes of the wheels, or even to have a guard on a carriage swing a club at riders as they passed. Police would come together to raid places where bicycling was popular (usually some of the safest places to ride), creating charges that may or may not have been true to cut back on what they felt were menaces. Since bicycling was new to the streets, many towns and villages created their own rules about it, which weren’t common knowledge and weren’t consistent from place to place. It was common for cyclists to get stopped for a transgression and to be fined.

Image: Public Domain

Bicycling to this point seemed to have been made for men, with the physical and social requirements in line with the gender spheres of the time. Many men felt that bicycling made them feel more masculine in a new, urban world where lifestyles were becoming more sedentary. To them, part of the thrill of riding was the physical effort involved in riding and the risks of constant falls. Men solidified their hold on bicycling as their own realm by creating clubs. These groups not only provided a sense of camaraderie but allowed men to collectively campaign for better rules and road conditions. They also, however, created a feeling of exclusiveness, which strengthened the idea of bicycling as belonging to the realm of young, urban, professional white men.

The bicycle continued to evolve in design over the decade of the 1870s. Once companies realized there was a market for machines that would allow people to move themselves around faster than walking, by using their own energy rather than a horse’s or an engine’s, they tried to think of ways to sell vehicles to audiences besides young, physically fit men. They began to invest more into developing the tricycle as a tool for women and older people, and like the bicycle before it, its novelty created a demand for it among the upper classes. Once Queen Victoria expressed interest in the tricycle, it became promoted as a genteel machine that refined people could use, and people got permission to ride them in places where bicycles had been banned. Because of the different status of the tricycle, it became acceptable for women to ride them, and women’s tricycling clubs even began to form.

Tricycles were not without their problems, however. With a regular bicycle, there was one track of wheels since the wheels were aligned. This meant that even with some debris or rough conditions in the road, the likelihood of being able to avoid it was high as long as the rider was able to maneuver their bicycle. With a tricycle, there were three tracks of wheels, two back wheels and the front wheel between them. Avoiding obstacles was more difficult. The tricycle took up more room in the road, making oncoming traffic harder to avoid. In the case of an accident, it was easier for a rider to become tangled in the spokes of the large wheels, and there was no effective braking mechanism for the tricycle. In some years, like 1883, tricycle accidents outnumbered bicycle accidents. The tricycle was an important step in the evolution of the bicycle, but it was far from perfect.

And so the evolution of the bicycle continued…

If you liked this, stay tuned because part two of this series is coming up next week! I’ll address how women got involved in bicycling, how their roles changed, and some of the things that got in their way.

Further Reading:
Alderson, Frederick. Bicycling: A History. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972.
Bijker, Wiebe E.. Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1997.

Other GeekMom posts bicycle fans might be interested in:

Empowering People One Bike At a Time


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