Women’s Bicycles (part 1)

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Image from an 1889 advertisement for a ladies’ safety bicycle, Note the drop-frame (also known as a step-through frame), chain guard, and skirt guard, Via Wikimedia Commons

 

Today, one might think of the term “women’s bicycle” in a couple of different ways. Casual riders may think of women’s bicycles based primarily on appearance. Although many men also ride drop-frame (step-through) or mixte frame bicycles, at least in the United States, they often are thought of as women’s bikes because they allow the rider to wear a skirt more easily than a diamond-frame bicycle. This understanding of masculine and feminine bicycles dates back a long time.

 

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Peugeot Mixte, Via Wikipedia

 

However, there are also performance bicycles designed with women in mind. Women’s Specific Design (or WSDTM as Trek calls them) are meant to fit average female proportions better than other bicycles. As a side note, there is an inherent problem with thinking of bicycles as “normal” bicycles and women specific bicycle’s, rather than as men specific bicycles and women specific bicycles, but more on that later.

 

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Women’s velocipede. Note that it has a seat instead of a saddle.

 

Since the very earliest bicycles- velocipedes- manufacturers have developed bicycles for women. For women who rode velocipedes, there were early drop frames, which allowed for shortened skirts over bloomers. Women’s velocipedes had seats, while men’s had saddles, which had more to do with propriety than a deep understanding of how anatomical differences might affect comfort.

In 1885, the Rover, which some argue is the first modern safety bicycle was introduced at the British bicycle exhibition known as the Stanley Show. In 1887, Dan Albone introduced the first women’s safety bicycle known as the “Anfield Ivel.” The first mass-produced women’s safety bicycle, made the Starley brothers, who also invented the rover, hit the market in 1889.

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Two women with bicycles, c. 1895. Via oldbike.eu

 

The first women’s bicycles were designed to accommodate a woman in skirts. Some women did dress in knickerbockers or other modified costumes that allowed them to ride a diamond frame, but it was not the norm. Drop-frame bicycles had disadvantages. They had less structural integrity and thus tended to be heavier than men’s bicycles. Women riding in long skirts were forced to add accessories like heavy chain guards in order to ride safely. Still, specialized women’s bicycles contributed to making bicycling acceptable. They allowed women to wear skirts and also did not force women to straddle a bar, which had sexual connotations. Additionally, their heavier weight made it hard to ride very quickly, which was considered unfeminine.

In a later (post-vacation) entry, I’ll discuss modern women’s bicycles and why there is much more to them than being able to ride them in skirts. Indeed, for performance bicycles, skirts don’t come into the picture at all.

 

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Dressing for the Safety Bicycle

Quite a lot has already been written about women’s bicycling dress in the 1890s, although my dissertation is the most detailed research on this project that I have been able to find. There is, however, a fair amount of misinformation about what women wore. A common claim is that the majority of women gave up corsets and skirts when they adopted the bicycle, which just isn’t true.

It’s certainly a compelling story- that women discovered the bicycle, threw off their cumbersome garments, and rode into a liberated future. Yet, while there are numerous visual examples bloomers (or knickerbockers), there is not much evidence that they ever became the norm for cycling. They often were considered peculiar and even immodest. They revealed more of a woman’s legs than typical dress and their split form made it possible for women to straddle a diamond-frame bicycle, such as the one pictured below.

 

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Cartoon from Punch, via OIdbike.eu

 

They were an easy target to make fun off and satiric magazines like Punch, Puck, and Life regularly made fun of women in bloomers. The myriad images are no doubt part of the reason that so many people believe bloomers were common.

 

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Brown Wool Cycling Costume with Divided Skirt, c. 1896-1898, American, 2009.300.532a-d, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Mr. and Mrs. Morton Sultzer, 1979

 

So if women didn’t wear bloomers, what did they wear? Typically, women wore shortened skirts, although how short could vary widely. Some skirts were only three inches above the ground, whereas more daring women might wear a skirt that fell to just below the knee. It’s impossible to establish the average length, but most skirts were probably between lower calf and ankle length. Some women also wore skirts that were divided, almost like extra-wide culottes. These skirts required much more fabric, but some writers believed that they were safer and kept women’s skirts in place. The ideal divided skirt would look just like an ordinary skirt.

 

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Side View of Woman on Bicycle, mid 1890s, via Oldbike.eu

 

Women typically wore matching or coordinated jackets for cycling, but they also could wear a shirtwaist (blouse) tucked into their skirt. Some of the jackets I studied had boning for added structure. Many women continued to wear corsets, although tight-lacing was not recommended. There were special bicycling corsets, although in some cases companies may have marketed a special “bicycling” corset to convince women they needed more corsets. Some women adopted less structured corsets or health waists, which could have less boning or even cording in place of metal bones. Corsets would have provided bust support, although I have found no written examples were this purpose is articulated.

To the modern eye, many cycling costumes may not appear all that much different than other types of every day dress, but there are functional differences. Cycling costumes tended to be made out of sturdy wool, although there were linen costumes, as well. Some had features such leather stitched around the hem, which would protect the skirt from ripping if it got caught (and presumably also made it harder for the skirt to catch). Some women would not have purchased or sewed specialized costumes, but there were numerous options available for those who had the means and inclination.

Thoughts on cycling this winter

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My husband (left) and a friend biking in Florida.

 

In the last two weeks, I have biked both in snowy Minneapolis and in a winterless suburb of Orlando. It remains to be seen how it will feel to bike again in Minneapolis after getting the chance to bike again in shorts and a short-sleeved jersey. Granted, at the moment it is in the 40s and raining, so it isn’t exactly a return to winter cycling.

 

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One of about twenty alligators we biked past.

 

Assuming I am dressed correctly, the cold is not my biggest obstacle when it comes to winter cycling. The necessity of dressing for the cold, and determining the correct layers, is a bigger challenge. Dressing for the cold and riding in the cold may seem to be more or less the same issue, but to parse a bit more finely, I’ve found that once I dress correctly, the cold is no longer very troublesome. Granted, I’m fortunate that I choose when and where I ride.

I recently attended the Winter Cycling Congress, which was conveniently held in Minneapolis this year. How to dress for winter came up multiple times. Unfortunately, it was not the central focus of any presentations outside of a pecha kucha on how to layer. If  I weren’t trying to finish my dissertation (hence the rather long absence), I would have liked to have conducted interviews with cyclists on how they dress and thinking about what to wear to bike in the cold.

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Most likely someone I know returning from biking on the coldest day (I skipped that day).

 

Throughout the conference I found it interesting how often the idea that one didn’t need to invest much money in clothes for winter cycling came up. It’s certainly possible to buy almost everything at thrift stores (and I personally like to use my dad’s old cashmere sweaters as a mid-layer on really cold days), but I do think there is something to be said for specialized clothing. I’m especially in favor of specialized clothing for longer rides. Soft-shell tights with articulated knees, like the tights I have from Bontrager, make for much more comfortable rides. For commuting my biggest clothing necessity is a day-glow yellow windbreaker, mostly because people aren’t necessarily expecting cyclists in winter.

 

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Matching fat bikes before the first snow

 

It seemed that there was some level of discomfort with explicitly discussing what factors would affect someone’s interest in and ability to invest in optimal gear– and not just in regard to clothing. Some attendees were critical of fat bikes. This is my first winter with a fat bike, and mine even has studded tires, and I love it.  I’ve biked in previous winters, but always somewhat tentatively. Having a fat bike makes winter bicycling much more accessible and enjoyable. Of course, a fat bike isn’t necessary for biking in the winter, but it can certainly help make winter cycling less scary. For those who can’t afford/ don’t want a fat bike but want/need to bike in winter, studded tires are a huge help. Clearly, some people manage to get by just fine without them, but I’m far too nervous about falling for that, except on days where everything has been cleared.

For me, and I’m sure I’m not alone, fear of falling is actually a bigger challenge than the cold. An even bigger fear is having a car lose control and hit me, but I’m lucky to live a couple of blocks from a trail. I’ve found that off-road cycling with my fat bike is the most fun I’ve ever had at three miles an hour. One day we rode at the River Bottoms just after it had snowed several inches, so the snow was not yet packed down. Sadly, I never seem to remember to take photos when cycling, so you’ll have to take my word for it that it was quite lovely.

We weren’t the first fat-bikers to ride the trail, so there was about an eight-inch wide path of packed snow. As far as bike handling, it’s the hardest biking I’ve ever done. I kept veering off in one direction or the other and barely saving myself from falling, although there are worse fates than falling into the soft snow. At one point, we saw the outline of an arm where someone else had lost their balance. At this rate, I may even be a mediocre mountain biker by the end of winter.

 

 

 

 

Men’s bicycling clothes

 

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The American Velocipede, 1868, a wood engraving from Harper’s Weekly

 

During the nineteenth century, men’s dress clearly needed less adaptation for cycling than women’s, but men also wore specialized clothing. Unfortunately, men’s clothing tends to be neglected in studies– including in my own dissertation, but I do hope to expand my studies in the future.

 

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A men’s waistcoat, circa 1774-1793, Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Western men’s clothing used to be just as decorative as women’s clothing (if quite a bit narrower in silhouette), but starting in the late 18th century, men began to adopt increasingly plain three-piece suits. J. C. Flügel famously referred to men’s transition from decorative to somber as, “The great masculine renunciation.” During the nineteenth century, men typically wore a jacket of some type, a vest, a shirt, and trousers. Men’s clothing was dramatically different from women’s clothing.

Based on images, it appears that men’s clothing did not tend to be greatly adapted for riding a velocipede. Men generally are shown wearing three pieces suits and full-length trousers, although they could be tucked into tall boots or worn under spats. Men may also have strapped their trousers down to keep them from catching. Images of men on high-wheels in the early 1870s often show men wearing narrow long trousers. Men’s dress bicycling dress seems to have changed starting in the mid-1870s.

 

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Photograph, Mr. McLeod, Bicycle Club, Montreal, QC, 1885, Silver salts on glass – Gelatin dry plate process. Note the military style of his jacket. By Wm. Notman & Son [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Beginning around 1850, men began wearing short pants known as knickerbockers for riding, shooting, and hunting. In previous centuries, many men had worn knee length trousers, which were sometimes known as breeches. It appears that men who bicycled began to take their cue from other sports and integrated knickerbockers (which were cut full and buckled at the knee) or narrow breeches into their bicycling wardrobe.

A jacket, vest, and breeches or knickerbockers became the typical costume of gentleman cyclists. Some men continued to ride in long pants, which was probably especially common for men riding to a particular destination, such as work. For more serious riding, knee-length trousers were more functional, as they were less likely to catch. Cycling knickers also contained useful features such as reinforced crotches, so abrasion would not shorten their life span.

 

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Advertisement for two types of men’s cycling costumes, sack jacket on the left, and a Norfolk jacket on the right, from the CTC gazette, 1899, Via oldbike.eu

 

Granted, by today’s standards, with many cyclists dressing in spandex with padded shorts, these clothes hardly seem entirely functional, much less comfortable, particularly for warm weather riding when even light-weight woven wool must have been quite uncomfortable. There are images of men wearing only a vest and a shirt, and in some instances only a shirt, so men most likely adapted how they dressed based on weather conditions.

Many bicycling clubs had uniforms, which clearly identified members. Uniforms also served as a way of keeping out men who could not afford to purchase one. Early high-wheel clubs were quite exclusive. As David V. Herlihy has explained, during the 1870s British clubs often required that members be able to pay for a bicycle, a uniform, and dues. Additionally, they needed to be nominated by a current member and their admittance was determined by vote. The first American high-wheel bicycle club was formed in 1879, at Harvard, which suggests a similar level of elitism.

According to Jesse J. Gant and Nicholas Hoffman in Wheel Fever, men’s cycling clothing became less formal by the end of the nineteenth century, and tended to be woven out of lighter materials, such as light-weight tweeds. However, as there are very few extant garments, it is difficult to establish how much materials changed during the late nineteenth-century. The Los Angeles County Historical Museum has a men’s cycling suit made out of linen, which would have been much less durable than wool, but much cooler to wear.

 

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Marshall “Major” Taylor, Public Domain, Via Wikipedia

Men who took part in serious races were able to wear much more informal and better adapted clothing than most other men. Based on images, it appears that racers wore knit wool, which was a common enough material for both men’s and women’s undergarments. During the 1890s, men raced in short-sleeved or sleeves shirts, along with shorts that fell to mid-thigh (and sometimes even shorter). I am not sure when this type of cycling clothing became common, but Harper’s Weekly featured men wearing shorts and short-sleeved shirts in 1886. This type of cycling clothing looks remarkably similar to what many cyclists wear today.

 

The safety bicycle

The safety bicycle, or what most people think of simply as a bicycle, is one of the most thoroughly discussed aspects of bicycle history. I have over half a dozen books that discuss its development in great detail. More books continue to be written, and it appears that there is still more to be said on the subject. Given the sheer amount of information available, I am barely going to scratch the surface here.

 

The high-wheel clearly was not safe, although its danger was part of its appeal. Still, some bicycle designers were interested in making a safer bicycle and came up with a number of different designs. Unlike modern bicycles, the earliest safety bicycle still did not have equally sized wheels, although they were much closer in size than a high-wheels two wheels. None of these early designs were as elegant as the high-wheel, but they demonstrate the experimentation that occurred on the way to modern bicycles.

In 1885, British cycling manufacturers debuted the first “diamond frame” bicycles. Of course, as Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing showed in Bicycle Deisgn: An Illustrated History, they are not truly diamond shaped, but it’s fairly clear why we call them that. These bicycles still did not have equally sized wheels, but it did not take long for manufacturers to make this change. Unlike the high-wheel and the velocipede, these bicycles are rear-driven. Rear-driven bicycles typically are chain driven.

 

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“King of Scorchers,” c. 1894. Via oldbike.eu

 

Proponents of the high-wheel did not immediately adopt the safety bicycle, which some men thought unmasculine. As David V. Herlihy described in Bicycle, when safety bicycle technology improved it became apparent that the high-wheel’s heyday was coming to a close. One of the most important improvements was the pneumatic tire, which increased both comfort and speed. As racers found that they could ride faster on the safety bicycle than on the high-wheel, they quickly switched over. By the early 1890s, the safety bicycle had become the norm. The height of the bicycle boom occurred between 1895 and 1897, but bicycling culture was important throughout the 1890s.

 

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Two women with bicycles, c. 1895. Via oldbike.eu

 

The safety bicycle was also better adapted for use by women, although riding a diamond frame in long skirts was not exactly feasible. Drop-frame (or step through) bicycles made it possible for women to give up their tricycles in favor of less cumbersome bicycles. The first drop-frame bicycles designed particularly for women were introduced in both Britain and the United States in 1887. Interestingly, many American women adopted the bicycle before their British counterparts, some of whom continued to ride tricycles into the 1890s.

In 1889, the first mass-produced women’s bicycle, known as the Pscyho ladies’ bicycle (yes, that’s its real name), was introduced in Britain and soon imported to the United States. The drop-frame bicycle, like the tricycle, made it possible for women to ride in conventional clothing. However, it was not without flaws. For one thing, drop-frame bicycles were heavier and had less structural integrity. In addition, women’s skirts were still a hazard, so the bicycles tended to be equipped with a chain guard, a skirt guard, and fenders. All of these accouterments made them even heavier.

Some people probably thought women’s heavier bicycles were for the best, it was frowned upon for women to ride too quickly (known as scorching). Even a heavy bicycle was less cumbersome than a tricycle– and less expensive, and women took to it in scores. There are no precise numbers, but Ross Petty estimated that by 1896 there were between 1.3 and 3.25 million women riding bicycles in Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. David V. Herlihy wrote that women purchased about one third of bicycles in the United States. So, women were a significant percentage of the market in the 1890s.

 

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Marshall “Major” Taylor, c. 1900.

 

Women faced obstacles to becoming bicyclists, but it was easier for Anglo women of means to be accepted than it was for black cyclists such as the bicycle champion Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor. Major Taylor was not allowed to race against white cyclists in the Southern United states. In 1892,  The League of American Wheelmen (LAW) stated that men of all races could join, but in 1894 black individuals were banned from joining, partially due to pressure from southern members. This topic, like the topic of gender in bicycling, is too important to be addressed in one paragraph (or one post). Jesse Gant’s post “Whites on Bikes” addresses racial exclusivity during the nineteenth century, although of course racism continues to be an issue in modern bicycling.

 

 

Selling bicycles or women?

Facebook/Colnago
Facebook/Colnago

Companies have long used images of scantily clad, naked or simply strangely posed women to sell products, and the bicycling industry is no exception. Recently, the bicycle company Colnago has been criticized for images featuring women posed next to high-end bicycles posed in strange positions wearing impractical clothing. Colnago has since apologized, although it is yet to be seen whether the apology will lead to any meaningful change in their advertising.The advertisement has gotten enough attention that Bicycling Magazine and Cycling Weekly have both posted articles criticizing Colnago.

Facebook/Colnago
Facebook/Colnago

In the 1890s, bicycling companies– particularly French bicycling companies according to one source— sometimes uses illustrations of nude women to sell bikes, although “sexy” images of women on bicycles dates back much earlier. Earlier this year, Aaron Cripps briefly addressed the history of objectifying women in cycling advertisements starting in the 1890s on his blog Cycling History.

Bicycle poster, circa 1895. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Bicycle poster, circa 1895. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Advertisements in the 1890s often included illustrations of naked or nearly-naked who accompanied bicycles in impossible positions. For example, the figure in the Cycles Gladiator poster is flying along with the bicycle rather than actually riding it. The wings on the bicycle reference Hermes, the messenger god, who wore winged sandals, as does the nude figure who is meant to be an idealized archetype of a Woman, rather than any particular individual.

Advertisement for Bicyclettes Terrot shows a different ideal. Lucien Baylac, via Wikimedia Commons
Advertisement for Bicyclettes Terrot shows a different ideal. Lucien Baylac, via Wikimedia Commons

Although there were many advertisements during this period that were aimed at women, these certainly were not. The nude figures tend to be seen with men’s diamond frame bicycles, rather than the type of bicycle most women actually rode at this time. As the art historian T. J. Clark wrote in The Painting of Modern Life: “A nude, to repeat, is a picture for men to look at, in which Woman is constructed as an object of somebody else’s desire.” Her main purpose is to be desirable.

Jean de Paleologu via Wikimedia Commons
Jean de Paleologu via Wikimedia Commons

In the case of some of the posters one could make the argument that they are art– or at least that there is artistry and imagination in their creation. Granted, if the artists were alive today I might be tempted to comment on the unlikelihood of flying next to a bicycle naked or standing on the saddle while dressed in gossamer fabric, but I don’t think they were trying to be all that literal. The French posters may have been referencing Marianne, a symbol of the French Republic who is a form of Lady Liberty. The images imply that riding a bicycle is liberating, while also providing an excuse to display a nude figure.

So what exactly is the problem with companies using sexualized images of women now? The women are actually wearing more clothes than their 19th century counterparts and it can hardly be argued that models are generally a realistic representation of how people look everyday. It’s also safe to say that women in the nineteenth century often weren’t taken seriously as human beings– if they even were considered human beings– and that replicating nineteenth century ideas is probably not the most forward thinking thing to do.

Facebook/Colnago
Facebook/Colnago

For me, and apparently for other cyclists as well, the advertisements are so infuriating because they suggest that women aren’t serious cyclists and shouldn’t be taken seriously as potential bike customers. Instead, they imply that the company believes they will sell more bikes if they put them next to attractive women, as if the purchase of a bike includes (at no extra cost!) an attractive woman. As if it were common to ride a road bike while high-heels or socks. It’s fairly clear that these are not some kind of innovative clip-less compatible socks, as we can see that there are no cleats on the bottom of her feet.

The issue isn’t what individual women choose to ride in. The images feature models who are posing, not candid shots of women with their own bikes. If a woman wants to attempt to ride in heels, well, that seems like an uncomfortable choice, but I am sure it has been done (although most likely not too often on a bike like that). Other bike companies manage to have advertisements that show women actually riding bikes, or fixing their own bikes. I regularly see women riding in everything from mini-skirts to commuter pants to cycling kits. But you know what I have never seen once in real life? A woman standing next to a bike with her butt in the air while she glances over her shoulder while dressed in socks.

The high-wheel in the 1870s

Ariel high-wheel, photo by Mike deMille
Ariel high-wheel, photo by Mike deMille

High-wheels were developed when it became apparent that the bigger the front wheel on a velocipede relative to the back wheel, the faster one could ride. Some high-wheels had a front wheel of 60 inches, and a back wheel of only 16. To modern eyes, high-wheel bicycles look like a strange and dangerous invention, which is an accurate but also overly simplified interpretation.

The high-wheel lasted much longer than the velocipede. According to Bicycle Design: An Illustrated History, the first generation of high-wheels was developed in 1869, before the velocipede craze had ended. James Moore, a British racer, started to use French high-wheels in both Britain and France, prompting his competitors to adopt them as well.

However, it was in Britain that the high-wheel, or the bicycle as it was now known, first became popular. The Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) halted bicycle production in France, making Britain the center of bicycle production. Bicycle racing was central to the high-wheel’s development, as watching races remained popular. Bicycle manufacturers continued to improve the high-wheels design, cutting down its weight, which increased its speed.

The high-wheel was certainly dangerous, but it was also more effective machine than the velocipede. Glen Norcliffe pointed out in The Ride to Modernity, many young men were drawn to the high-wheel at least partially because riding one was a risky endeavor. One of the biggest challenges with the high-wheel was mounting and dismounting. In order to get on, riders often ran along the bicycle to get it moving and then leaped into the saddle. Another option was putting one foot on the step located over the back wheel and pushing against the ground with the other foot before hauling oneself up. Some high-wheels were equipped with spoon breaks or roller breaks, but many preferred to ride without them and simply backpedaled to slow down.

The high-wheel became popular among well-to-do young men in Britain starting around the mid-1870s. Young men formed clubs at Cambridge and Oxford, and bicycle clubs became increasingly common. Clubs, however, were quite exclusive and tended to be open only to relatively wealthy men of a certain class. In 1878, the first high-wheels arrived in the United States in Boston and soon spread to Harvard and then to other Ivy League schools.

During the 1870s, cycling was a highly classed and gendered activity. Men who rode high-wheels often wanted their sport to remain exclusive. Being able to afford a high-wheel, along with club dues, and a uniform indicated that the cyclist belonged to the leisure class, as who else could afford a machine with no real practical purpose? It was also impossible for a woman to ride a high-wheel without cross-dressing or at least adopting dramatically altered garb. Later on, many cycling clubs welcomed women, but at this stage bicycling was in no way democratic.

The importance of having pedals

Pedals are, of course, fundamental to bicycles. There was a bicycle-like invention known as a draisine or a hobby horse invented in 1817. However, bicycle scholars like David V. Herlihy argue that it is not technically a bicycle, as it lacked pedals and cranks. Regardless, with the exception of striders for toddlers, bicycles produced today have pedals. Before I got into bicycling, pedals were not something I had ever thought about. My pedals were always plastic with yellow reflectors. Then I bought a bike that didn’t come with pedals and decided to learn to ride with clipless pedals. The name seems contradictory, as your feet are attached to the pedals, but more on that later. Sheldon Brown and John Allen provide a detailed account of different types of pedals and how they work.

Velocipede made by Andrew Muir and Co, Manchester, England, 1869, Courtesy of Oldbike.eu
Note the pedals on this velocipede made by Andrew Muir and Co, Manchester, England, 1869, Courtesy of Oldbike.eu

Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing describe the development of pedals in Bicycle Design. Since the 1860s, there have been many different types of pedals invented. Velocipedists’ pedals were quite different from modern pedals, as riders rested their instep, rather than the ball of their foot, on the pedal.  Flat pedals were first used with the high-wheel bicycle (today it tends to be called a penny farthing). In 1876, rat trap pedals were invented, which look very similar to many modern pedals.

Campagnolo pedal with strap and toe clip, early 1980s
Campagnolo pedal with strap and toe clip, early 1980s

By the late 1880s, pedals with toe-clips started to become more common, even on high-wheels. Toe clips kept feet from flying off, which can be dangerous when traveling quickly.  More serious cyclists began to wear special shoes that locked into their pedal along with toe clips. However, it can be difficult to get out of toe clips, particularly if a cyclist uses additional straps. From there, so-called clipless pedals were invented around 1894. Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing write: “Confusingly, at the heart of each and every so-called clipless pedal is a clip. Such pedals are called clipless because they don’t have an external toe clip.” Instead, they have a cleat on the sole of the shoe that locks into a fastener on the pedal. After the 1890s, the clipless pedal mostly disappeared, and until the 1970s serious cyclists used toe clips and straps to keep their feet secure. Bike-advisor.com includes a visual of different types of pedals.

Today, there are a range of different clipless pedals available, but many riders still use toe clips as well. I’ve never ridden with toe clips, but I do usually ride clipless. There are two main categories of clipless pedals: Those designed for mountain biking and those designed for road biking. What is the difference between the two? Mountain bike pedals are typically designed so that they are easier to clip in and out of, as mountain bikers are more likely to have to put a foot down unexpectedly than road cyclists. Mountain bike shoes generally have some some tread on the bottom, which makes it easier to walk, as mountain biking sometimes involves having to walk your bike. Road shoes tend to be very difficult to walk in, as they have a smooth surface with a cleat protruding under the instep. Road pedals have a wider, more stable platform and help improve performance.

Left: Sidi road shoes Right: Bontrager mountain bike pedals at right.
Left: Sidi road shoes                     Right: Bontrager mountain bike shoes at right.

Sheldon Brown explains that clipless pedals work similarly to ski binding. Indeed, the first functional clipless pedals were made by the company Look, which first made skis (my road bike is equipped with Look pedals). Clipless pedals engage with the cleats on the bottom of the cyclist’s shoes, locking the shoes onto the pedals. You clip out of clipless pedals by twisting your heel outward.

John Allen recommends mountain bike pedals for urban cycling, recreational riding, and touring, and you can read his post for information on different types of mountain bike pedals. On my primary bike I use Shimano SPD pedals  which are virtually indestructible. Learning to ride clipless was certainly unnerving, and as a less experienced cyclist, the idea of making it more difficult to put a foot down seemed absurd. The first time I went out for a ride around my neighborhood I forgot to clip out and promptly tipped over. A bit embarrassing, but I was fine. I also had some trouble on steep hills at first, but failure to clip out has never caused me to be more than very slightly injured.

My first clipless pedals were flat on one side and were Shimano SPDs on the other. This type of pedal worked well when I was a beginner who was relying primarily on one bike, as I could wear regular shoes if I wanted to. While one could feasibly ride a short distance with regular shoes and clipless pedals, most clipless pedals have a much smaller surface area, so it is hard to keep your foot from sliding off. The downside of this type of pedal, is that the pedals always seem to end up on the opposite side of where you want them to be.

Eventually I switched to double-sided Shimano SPDs for my touring bike, which meant I always had to wear specialized shoes. Sometimes this is inconvenient because I always have to bring a change of shoes, but I prefer not having to worry about my feet flying off my pedals. Additionally, clipless pedals or toe clips make for more efficient riding. I ended up deciding to write about pedals after getting my fifth (I know) bike recently, which is a bare bones single speed that I ride with platform pedals. As it turns out, as much as I love riding clipless, sometimes it is just simpler to throw on a pair of street shoes, grab my bike, and head out the door.

Bicycles and bustles

While there are still not many sources for functional, relatively fashionable clothing for women who bike, I’m generally quite relieved that I am not trying to bike in the nineteenth century. While things did get a bit better by the 1890s, the first women to ride bicycles in 1868 had to find something new to wear.

Morning Dress, circa 1870, Met Museum
Morning dress, circa 1870,  Met Museum

Even though the vast majority of velocipedists were men, there was very little written about what men should wear– short of suggestions that men might want to clip their trousers. When it came to the idea of women riding velocipedes, one obstacle was their dress. Women’s clothing in the late 1860s was in no way functional for bicycling– or for anything, really. Women’s skirts were the biggest hindrance. At this time, skirts were beginning to move away from the “hoop skirt” (think: Gone with the Wind), but they weren’t exactly shrinking in all dimensions. The above example is quite moderate for the time period, as it was a costume meant to be worn early in the day. The volume was becoming concentrated at the back in the form of a bustle and would eventually begin to resemble a shelf, which made sitting quite challenging. Additionally,  even if women rode tricycle velocipedes, long skirts were impossible. So, what exactly could a velocipedienne wear if she were daring enough to ride in public?

What to wear depended largely on where a woman would be cycling and who would be there to observe. A woman riding in single-sex gymnasium or in a private garden had more leeway than a “respectable” woman who wanted to ride in public. Some women rode for exercise, while many others rode as a form of titillating performance. Performers were not subject to the same rules of propriety.

Amelia Bloomer, proponent of a new style, Image scan by Philip V. Allingham
Amelia Bloomer, proponent of a new style, Image scan by Philip V. Allingham

Women riding in private could don a type of reform dress known as bloomers, which were very full, usually ankle-length pants inspired by Turkish clothing. They were first worn in public around 1850 in order to promote healthier women’s clothing, but the women who did so often were ridiculed. So, there was some precedence for women to wear adapted clothing. Nearly twenty years later, bloomers had not been forgotten and writers discussing what women could wear for the velocipede often suggested bloomers of some kind. On January 9, 1869 in Scientific American, one writer recommended “a shorter dress, with flowing pants,” for women to wear while riding in the park.

Image from Illustrated Western World, March 13, 1869, Courtesy of Children's Literature Research Collections, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis.
Image from Illustrated Western World, March 13, 1869, Courtesy of Children’s Literature Research Collections, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis.

The “Velocipede Belle” from Illustrated Western World shows the kind of costume that women could wear, although the costume illustrated would have been quite risqué given how much of her lower body is visible. I’m not sure that her bloomers quite qualify as “flowing,” but that is a rather subjective term.  The velocipede belle’s costume certainly appears to be inspired by both the 1850s bloomer, although they are shorter, and late-1860s fashions. The style of her skirt follows the general silhouette of the period, including more volume at the back than at the front, with the bow bringing additional volume to the almost-bustle. The ruffled details are similar to the costume from the Met Museum. Photographic evidence suggests that the illustration is a fairly accurate representation of what women would have worn. The significance of a woman riding in public while being pursued by two men is a separate issue entirely.

Black (first name unknown), a trick-rider on her velocipede, circa 1869. Carte de Visite Courtesy of the Collection of Lorne Shields
Black (first name unknown), a trick-rider on her velocipede, circa 1869. Carte de Visite Courtesy of the Collection of Lorne Shields

The above carte de visite is a rare example of a woman photographed on a velocipede. The subject– a trick rider– is clad in a fashionable jacket and a shortened skirt over bloomers. It is difficult to tell, but it appears that the bloomers are cuffed in a material that matches the skirt. Neither of the figures are wearing true bustles, but both costumes have more volume at the back than at the front of sides. Note that in both examples the figures show very little skin. They wear gloves and hats and have high collars. Still, their appearance would have not been acceptable everyday dress, even if their costumes appear very modest by twenty-first century standards.

A brief history of the velocipede

Exant second generation velocipede, circa 1868 By tetedelacourse (Velocipede Michaux-1) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Exant second generation velocipede, circa 1868 
Early bicycles– often known as velocipedes– first became popular in Paris in 1867. Who exactly invented the bicycle remains contested territory, but a carriage maker named Pierre Michaux worked with three brothers named Marius, Aimé, and René Olivier to sell velocipedes. They were the first to have commercial success. Velocipedes are recognizable as bicycles, and were sometimes called such as early as 1868. However, they are quite cumbersome compared to modern bicycles. Today, most bicycles are rear-driven, with the pedals and cranks driven by a chain. Like modern bicycles, the velocipede had two equally sized wheels, but the pedals were attached to the axis of the front wheel, which meant that the cyclist’s legs stretched out in front, which was an awkward riding position at best.1

The American Velocipede, 1868, a wood engraving from Harper's Weekly
The American Velocipede, 1868, a wood engraving from Harper’s Weekly

The velocipede was heavy, difficult to ride, and prohibitively expensive. In March 1869 in The Velocipedist Earnest Travers de Vere wrote that, while getting on a velocipede was not difficult: “To stay on is a labor of genius.”2  Velocipedes were made of iron and had wooden wheels like a wagon wheel, plus iron tires. Because they were so uncomfortable to ride, the British referred to them as “Boneshakers.” The cost of purchasing a velocipede meant that very few people could afford to own them. In the United States, for example, a velocipede cost between $75 to $100 ($1300 to $1700 in 2014), when a weekly income of $10 was more than adequate pay. Many of the first velocipedists were wealthy young Frenchmen with noble titles.

Velocipedes became a fad Western Europe and the United States, starting in France. In Paris, newly paved streets helped make way for the velocipede, with young men riding together at the popular park the Bois de Boulogne. Velocipedists formed clubs and public races became a popular diversion. Similar races also took place in Britain.

The first velocipedes arrived in the United States in late 1868.  Indoor rinks and schools opened up, with the teachers often having barely more experience riding than the students. There were schools everywhere from New York to Chicago to San Francisco, and even small towns opened up velocipede rinks. Students could rent velocipedes, which made learning to ride less exclusive. The rinks were often in small spaces on the upper floor of a building, which could be hazardous as novice cyclists crashed through windows. In the United States, most people rode indoors, as road conditions were quite poor. Those who rode outside often used sidewalks, which did nothing to help their popularity with non-cyclists.

Women's velocipede. Note that it has a seat instead of a saddle.
Women’s velocipede. Note that it has a seat instead of a saddle.

Bicycling was considered to be a masculine sport from the very beginning. For one thing, it was dangerous, for another women did not have as much social latitude as men and were not encouraged to be independent. Yet, a few brave women wanted to ride velocipedes anyway. Many women rode velocipedes with three wheels and/or a drop frame that they could mount more easily. One woman from Georgia who wrote into Scientific American was concerned with the propriety of riding astride and suggested a side-saddle machine.3

Velocipediennes, or female velocipedists, first rode in France. Who were these women? It is unlikely that the first women were themselves aristocrats, as such an activity would have been considered utterly inappropriate. Instead, given the cost of velocipedes, I believe that the the first women to ride were courtesans or mistresses to wealthy male patrons. For example, two courtesans Cora Pearl and Blanche d’Antigny both were known to ride velocipedes.

Many women who rode did so as a kind of performance, which meant they were outside of the rules that applied to middle and upper-class women. Women began to take part in races in France in 1868. Women raced in Bordeaux, France and in the Hippodrome (a wooden stadium that seated 15,000) in the Bois de Boulogne, in Paris. These races became quite popular. After all, riding a velocipede required much scantier clothing than women ordinarily wore. The women who performed on velocipedes were quite risque’. Some women who attempted to race were not skilled riders, but others were accomplished athletes.

In the United States, some women, such as Edith Shuler of Chicago and Carrie Moore (The “Velocipede Queen”) became skilled cyclists and performed for audiences,  sometimes even giving lessons to other women. Although velocipediennes were strongly associated with performance, some American women wanted to ride for exercise– and perhaps also to gain some freedom.  Private schools gave women the opportunity to learn away from the prying eyes of men. The velocipede did not have any long term effects on women’s independence, but it provided at least a few women with some personal freedom.

Footnotes

1 See: Bicycle by David Herlihy and Bicycle Design: An Illustrated History by Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing. Herlihy’s book and primary sources I found in my research informed the majority of this post..
2 The Velocipedist may have been the first American bicycling magazine. I was able to study the first issue at the Benson Ford Research Center at the Henry Ford Museum.
3 Her letter was published January 30, 1869.