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.

 

Velocipede_for_Ladies
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.

 

punch_magazine
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.

 

Figure 061
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.

 

Figure 044
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.

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.

 

On research: Velocipede vortex

I’m at the point in my dissertation where I really should be focused entirely on revising, and not collecting any new data. I am mostly succeeding in this endeavor.  However, I started working on revising my chapter on women’s dress and velocipedes, I found myself falling into a vortex trying to fill in some more gaps about women’s clothes.

It turns out that newspaper archives are a dangerous place to wander into if I want to get anything else done. Thus I have found myself searching through the Access Newspaper: Academic Library Version, which is an enormous repository of scanned newspapers (the British Newspaper Archive is also a great resource).

In 1869, velocipedes were wildly popular. When I looked for the term “velocipede” between 1868 and 1870, I ended up with  4,893 results. Narrowing my search to adding “dress” and any combination of “women,” “woman,” “lady,” and “ladies” led to. . .2,005 results. “Velocipede” and “bloomers” gave me a more manageable 24 results, most of which did not really lead anywhere helpful. There are also a number of other terms I could have tried, such as “bicycle,” a term that was in use by the height of the velocipede’s popularity.

This resource also does not give me any French language resources, which would lead me down a slower and more intensive path. I can read/translate French when I need to, but it’s a rather slow process compared to working in English. And it’s not like doing this kind of work in English is fast, either. Fortunately, I can scan through PDFs with word searches– which is much, much faster than working with actual documents– but the scans are often poor quality.

There is very little descriptive information regarding velocipede dress. As discussed in a previous entry, I have been able to piece together a general sense of how women may have dressed, but there just isn’t a complete picture. Granted, trying to determine from bits and pieces what options women may have had is part of the fun of research, at least from my slightly strange perspective. I’m afraid, however, that is time to cut myself off from the research vortex and focus on the information I do have.

 

How “lady cyclists” dressed for tricycling

 

Bicycling, c. 1887
Bicycling / Hy Sandham; aquarelle print by L. Prang & Co., 1887. Library of Congress.

 

When women took up tricycling in the 1880s, the first question asked tended to be, “What should I wear?” Both men’s and women’s clothing during the 19th century was much more structured than most of the clothing we wear today. But at least men were able to wear pants. Women had to find a way to dress that looked appropriate (i.e. modest and fashionable), but was not hazardous.

 

walking dress c 1882 DT247641
Walking dress, circa 1882. Women rode in dresses similar to this one. Metropolitan Museum of Art, DT247641.

 

Women who could afford to own tricycles were women of means, so they were able to afford specialized clothing for cycling.  For women who had different dresses for walking, taking tea, and dinner, it would have made sense to have a different dress for tricycling as well. Granted, specialized cycling clothing in the 1880s did not look terribly different from other types of women’s dress. Unfortunately, I have not found any existing tricycling dresses, although it is possible some exist but no one knows they were used for tricycling.

 

 

Starting in seventeenth century, wealthy British women dressed in tailored woolen riding habits for riding horses.  Riding habits were designed for women to ride side-saddle, and were designed with asymmetrical skirts that looked better on the horse than off the horse. Women were expected to change clothes before and after riding.

 

 

Fashionable women’s dress in the 1880s was cumbersome and in no way designed for athletic endeavors. Earlier in the decade, women’s dresses typically had a long, tight bodice with the volume gathered at the back of the skirt in a low bustle. Later on, the bustle, which is a device that thrusts the back of the skirt out, increased in volume. Women did not necessarily wear bustles with all of their clothing, and very large bustles were worn only for formal affairs.Tricycling costumes appear to have had either no bustle or a very small bustle that did not interfere with a seat or saddle.

For tricycling, women tended to wear tailored wool garments that shared some similarities with riding habits. While we we would probably look at tailored garments and find them quite “feminine,” they adapted traits from men’s garments. Their silhouettes tended to be simplified and they made it possible, if not exactly comfortable, for women to be more active.

Women’s clothing choices were considered to be very important to convince the public that it was acceptable for women to ride tricycles at all. Overall, neutral colors were recommended for tricycling costumes, as they were less likely to show dirt. Even more importantly, neutral colors drew less attention to a woman on a tricycle, or at least made her look more serious.

 

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Smartly dressed couple seated on an 1886-model quadracycle for two. The South Portico of the White House, Washington, D.C., in the background. Via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Writers recommended a range of styles women could choose from, but in general women wore a wool jacket with a matching wool skirt, which could be pleated (a common feature in fashionable every dress) or plain (more like a riding habit). Skirts, of course, were problematic because skirts that were too wide or long could get caught in the machine. Skirts that were too narrow or short were also a problem because they could show too much of a rider’s legs. Even the motion of a woman’s knees showing through her skirts was frowned upon.

One of the most discussed issues of women’s tricycling dress related to undergarments, which could not even be seen. Starting in the 1870s, women had begun wearing narrow trousers under riding habits. These trousers could not be seen underneath skirts and allowed women to ride without petticoats.

Some writers thought that women should also adopt knickerbockers (narrow knee-length trousers) or ordinary trousers for tricycling. Trousers were in danger of showing, but knickerbockers would have been difficult to see unless they showed through the skirt.

Others, however, were vehemently opposed to women wearing any form of pants under their skirts, arguing that it was masculine. Additionally, they meant that women would have to change clothes before and after riding if one were riding to a destination where appearance mattered. Perhaps the biggest issue was that advocates of tricycling were afraid that women would be less likely to cycle if they had to put on pants to do so.

Tricycling was a sport practiced by wealthy women who mostly likely were well-known in upper-class social circles. As cycling was still a questionable activity for women, they needed to convince others that one could ride a tricycle– even for long distances– and still be feminine. So writing about what to wear became a central way that early advocates tried to draw other women in (and convince their fathers or husbands that they should be allowed to cycle). Tricycling dress was used to demonstrate that cycling had become a socially acceptable sport for women.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

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.

Why bikes and clothing?

If you’ve ever wondered what would possess someone to spend several years of their life writing a large, unwieldy manuscript that may or may not lead directly to gainful employment, you are not alone. I’m certainly not able to answer that question in general, but for me it was a combination of nerdiness, passion, and determination combined with a mild dose of masochism. Not to mention very supportive and overly-educated parents. That and the realization that I could combine two things I love into one very large Word file: dress history and bicycles.

The bicycle often has been linked to ideas about liberating women. Susan B. Anthony famously said: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” While bicycling did not really transform the women’s movement, for women living in the late nineteenth-century, bicycling made it much easier to move through the world relatively unencumbered. Horses were very costly to own and maintain. Early bicycles were also expensive, but they became much more affordable by the mid-1890s, opening up cycling to multiple classes of women.

There is still something magical about getting on a bicycle and flying off down the road, regardless of one’s gender identity. Imagine how it might have felt to a woman who lived in a world without many transportation choices, where gender roles for women were far more restrictive than they are today. Women had to find ways to define bicycling as an acceptable activity for a “lady.” They had to learn how to ride, figure out what to wear, and some had to convince their fathers or husbands that bicycling was a reasonable activity. Considering bicycling clothing was necessary for practical reasons (how do you ride in a skirt?), but clothing was also a language that most women spoke. Linking it to bicycling made bicycling seem more accessible. Which brings me to why on earth I would want to write about bicycles and dress.

I’ve always been interested in clothing, and in high school I took three years of intensive sewing. Really. I stayed after school and sewed. I sometimes came in on weekends and sewed. Basically, along with piles of novels, sewing was my salvation. I did not have raw talent for sewing, but I do have stubbornness on my side, so I figured it out eventually. Later, I figured out I could combine books and clothing by studying dress history, so off I went to grad school.

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Bicycles were a somewhat more challenging progression. Both of my parents used bicycles to get around as kids. I did not. Not because my parents wouldn’t let me, but because I had a strong aversion to that wobbly two-wheeled object. Eventually, I figured out bicycling and came to enjoy it, but I regretfully never biked in college in Chicago. After I moved here, it took me a while to become accustomed to biking in the Twin Cities. But then I fell in love. First with a bike mechanic (quickly rendered irrelevant) and more importantly with bicycling itself. After the former romance with soured, I decided I was going to invest in a nice bike and get  into more serious cycling on my own. So, I bought a Salsa Casseroll, pictured above. Learning to really ride a bicycle– as opposed to casual rides on a hybrid– was a steep learning curve. Thanks to one crash, my chin is no longer symmetrical, but the early crashes were a small price to pay to finding such a liberating activity. Why did I find cycling so liberating?

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Cycling made me much more confident. I was never especially athletic when I was growing up, so it was transformative to find a physical activity I liked. I loved that I could go on a ride by myself whenever I wanted, but that I could also explore the city by bike with others. I’ve met many people through cycling I never would have met otherwise (I also met my husband because of bicycling, but that is a story for another time). I became much more familiar with the cities by bike than I ever would have by car. Bicycling also served as an activity other than reading in which I could remain in my typical hunched-over position. What do you find liberating about biking?

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Eventually, I realized that my focus on dress history– namely satire in the 1890s, could easily be linked to bicycles. Popular satirical magazines like the British Punch and the American Puck often made fun of women’s fashions. The trope of the New Woman, or early feminists who reportedly adopted masculine habits and dress, became a frequent target. Cartoonists often depicted the New Woman wearing bloomers and riding a bicycle, an image that endures to this day when people think of women bicycling in the 1890s. Yet, I discovered that most women rode in skirts. So, why did this image occur again and again? My topic was spurred on by a random conversation with someone who recommended that I look at bicycling posters. While my main focus ended up on neither satire nor posters, my early research for class papers combined with one random conversation sparked the beginning of this very long path.