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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In defense of spandex

Over several years of reading mainstream articles about cycling, I’ve noticed a tendency for writers for criticize cyclists for wearing spandex. Henry Jeffreys, a cyclist who has worn spandex in the past stated (presumably somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that it’s “bad for the soul.” Certainly, spandex cycling clothes are not the most flattering, but does one always have to look good when exercising?

I often care about looking good while biking. I was rather mortified on my first date – a road ride- with my now husband when I saw that I was wearing spandex and he was not. Generally, If my main purpose for going on a ride is to get somewhere, then I’ll usually dress for my destination more than my mode of transit, although bicycling does tend to put a damper on wearing silk. My commute is only two miles, so I bike in whatever it is that I’m planning to wear that day, which might consist of a dress or a blouse with a skirt or narrow pants. When I ride to work, I also tend to ride my upright bike with platform pedals so I don’t even need to change my shoes.

For many people, casual riding (or even less casual riding) in every day clothes may work perfectly well. Much of the time, I’m happy to throw on whatever and bike. However, spandex cycling clothing serves a purpose. Well, it can serve several purposes, but I’m not here to argue for or against wearing team kits when not racing or whether or not riding covered in logos is problematic. I’d argue that it’s main purpose is comfort, and regardless of how silly it may look, it certainly succeeds at being comfortable.

As much as I don’t especially enjoy standing around in padded shorts, a chamois really does make a huge difference on longer rides. I have regretted most rides over about 15 miles when I haven’t worn cycling shorts, and yes, that includes longer rides on my cruiser. I don’t especially care about jokes about spandex. Trust me, I get that bib shorts look silly, but I am troubled by the animosity towards cyclists, which seems to be magnified when cyclists wear spandex. I also realize that on the internet one can find someone who hates pretty much anything imaginable, so I try not to read to much into it, but here I go, reading into it.

Understandably, people associate cyclists who ride very fast regardless of context with spandex, but I’ve seen people do absurd and dangerous things on bicycles wearing all kinds of clothes (never a ballgown, but I’ll let you know if that ever happens). But this association between cyclists in spandex and biking like a jerk does not necessarily reflect reality.

Jeffreys wrote that it’s more common for Lycra-clad male cyclists to act like maniacs, and that it’s rare to see women who aren’t racing wearing Lycra. His statement is at least anecdotally accurate, but I don’t really think it’s their tight clothing that’s the problem. I also see plenty of women riding in spandex, although it’s true that most of us aren’t wearing team kits. Certainly, I’d love to see more women, perhaps myself included, joining racing teams, but that’s tangential for the moment.

Not being part of a team, my spandex cycling apparel is admittedly a bit visually quieter than that the costumes worn by your average male road rider. Yet, it’s functionally pretty much the same: the shorts protect me from discomfort and the jersey allows me to carry objects without having to load down my road bike. Unlike when I ride in a skirt, I don’t have to worry as much about my clothing staying in place.

Without conducting research, I can’t say why many cyclists choose spandex. I’d hazard a guess, however, that many people would say that when going on long rides, it’s the best choice because it’s more comfortable and practical than any other option.

 

 

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 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.