The forgotten cycle: Tricycling in the 1880s

Starley Royal Salvo similar to those purchased by Queen Victoria. Science Museum via Wikimedia Commons.
Starley Royal Salvo similar to those purchased by Queen Victoria. Science Museum via Wikimedia Commons.

Before the modern bicycle was developed, bicycling manufacturers in the late 1870s went in another direction in an attempt to make a safer cycle: the tricycle. Although, inventors had developed tricycles and quadricycles in the past, they had not been especially successful. The high-wheel tricycle was different.

Unlike the high-wheel,  the tricycle could be enjoyed by both men and women wearing conventional clothing. The tricycle appealed to men who were interested in cycling but were unwilling or unable to ride a high-wheel, and it appealed to women because it was possible for them to ride at all.

By the end of the 1870s, the high-wheel was considered technically perfect and manufacturers became interested in developing tricycles, presumably because they hoped to expand their market. By 1883, there were more tricycles than bicycles on view at London’s Stanley Cycle Show, and there was a period when it seemed like the tricycle would become more popular than the bicycle. The Stanley Show was an annual exhibition where new cycle models could be seen. American magazines like Outing reported on the Stanley Show, so its impact certainly was not limited to Britain.

Plectocycle tricycle, 1884. Courtesy of oldbike.eu.
Plectocycle tricycle, 1884. Courtesy of oldbike.eu.

Depending on one’s perspective there was a downside to tricycles, which is that they were prohibitively expensive. Thus, the tricycle had a great deal of snob appeal to the upper-classes. Queen Victoria purchased a pair of tricycles in 1881, which were to be ridden at her residence on the Isle of Wight. While she most likely to did not ride herself, her support of the tricycle made an important statement. If the Queen supported tricycling, then it must be an acceptable activity for ladies. Initially, at least, it was most acceptable for women to ride on private grounds, which was another thing only the upper-classes were likely to have access to.

Queen Victoria’s daughter Beatrice was known to ride a tricycle. In 1885, the American writer Minna Caroline Smith wrote in Outing: “When we first read that the Princess Beatrice had mounted the three-wheel, our lively interest began.” Beatrice served as a fashionable and appropriate model for women who were interested in tricycling. Reportedly, there were hundreds of British women who had taken to tricycling, and Smith certainly hoped that the sport would become as popular in the United States.

Illustration of two women on a sociable, circa 1886. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Illustration of two women on a sociable, circa 1886. Via Wikimedia Commons.

There were concerns about the propriety of women riding alone, which is where sociables and tandems came in. Sociables, where two riders rode side-by-side were developed first, followed by tandems. Many British and American writers were enthusiastic about the possibility of two-person bicycles, as it allowed a woman to be chaperoned by a man, or, less commonly, for two women to ride together. Some riders thought it was safer for women to ride a machine that a man controlled, as they believed that women did not have the mental capacity to steer. Some women (and some men, as well) scoffed at this idea, of course.

Riding a sociable or a tandem was seen as a positive way for men to share cycling with women, but many people felt that it was an activity that should be kept separate from “masculine” high-wheel rides. It was not simply a matter of speed, either, although high-wheels were somewhat faster, but also an attempt to keep bicycling free from any feminine influence. Writers romanticized the idea of two-person machines and they became associated with courting. However, one writer, Miss F. J. Erskine, commented that most women preferred the independence of steering their own machine.

Women and men were expected to cycle in different ways. It was considered improper, for example, for women to race. Women were supposed to sit upright on their machines and dress in appropriate clothing. Still, women toured on tricycles. However, one woman who attempted to organize a women’s only tour, did not succeed, as women insisted on bringing along their husbands or brothers.

Tricycling provided an opportunity for men and women to engage in a social activity together, often in the form of clubs. Some clubs were exclusive to tricycling and some bicycle clubs welcomed both men and women who rode tricycles into their membership. Tricycling also provided some women with the freedom to move about on their own, as women on horseback (while side-saddle) were able to do. Minna Carolina Smith thought it was just as as acceptable for a woman to cycle alone on a country road as it was for her to ride a horse. Attitudes toward women tricycling show that however much we may imagine absolute gender roles during the 19th century, the meanings of these roles were always up for negotiation.

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