Ugly girls on bicycles: “Don’t scratch a match on the seat of your bloomers.”
For many women, the Safety bicycle of the 1890s enabled escape. Escape from kith and kin, escape from the strictures of late Victorian society, escape from tight corsets and voluminous dresses (bloomers weren’t invented for bicycling but so-called ‘Rational dress’ was ideally suited to journeys awheel), and, in many cases, escape from chaperones. Later, it was the motorcar which enabled easy illicit liaisons (especially when motorcars were made more private, with side windows, a roof and, ahem, a bed of sorts) but it had been the bicycle which had given women their first true taste of freedom. Bicycles required no fare, no feed; bicycles didn’t have timetables; bicycles could speedily go – almost – anywhere.
Women could ride alone, and many did. The majority of the entries in a diary by a young Yorkshire lady, written between the years of 1894 and 1896, show that Ms Coddington went for long bicycle rides by herself. Nothing unusual about that today but back then it was pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable. The cover for Roads Were Not Built For Cars features a young Detroit woman riding alone. It was painted in 1897 by sea scene artist Seth Whipple, who entered it for a competition run by the League of American Wheelmen. It’s notable that the painting features a wheelwoman and not a wheelman.
Now, you can’t really write about women and 19th Century cycling without featuring the famous quote from leading US womens’ rights advocate Susan B Anthony. In 1896 she told the New York World’s Nellie Bly: “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, untrammelled womanhood.”
Many in Victorian society were scandalised by the behaviour of bicycling women, and severely disliked the free-flowing costumes many of them wore, but it was clear to all in the 1890s that the bicycle was a revolutionary vehicle, in more ways than one: it changed society. Among its many other accomplishments the bicycle hastened the emancipation of women. Many suffragettes rode bicycles, and women-only clubs, such as the Unique Cycling Club of Detroit (founded in 1894, and run from the same plush clubhouse as the Detroit Wheelmen), helped foster a growing sense of what would be described later as “sisterhood”.
This particular club was perfectly respectable – the chairwoman was married to the chairman of the Detroit Wheelmen – but bicycling, as a force for social change, was also at the forefront of a different kind of female emancipation. Lesbians of the 1890s latched on to cycling as an activity blissfully in tune with their radical sensibilities.
One of the wonderful things about cycling – then and now, really – is how it’s so adaptable, for both sexes. Men and women enjoyed the freedom of bicycling but for women it was especially liberating. An 1891 article in Outing asked “where shall [women] ride?”:
“The smiling countryside holds out arms of welcome to her, the shaded grassy road, the smooth steep incline, the bumping corduroy by-ways, the canal towpaths, the lakeside drives and the stubborn stiff hill to be climbed.”
Women on bicycles broadened their horizons beyond the neighbourhoods in which they lived. Parochial records in Dorset show that from 1890, there were marriages between couples from parishes further apart than previously. Late Victorian era cycling extended peoples’ geographical reach (better roads would help in this respect), enabling couplings from outside a confined area. Cycling helped expand the gene pool.
But women had to fight for their right to ride and were often mocked for “muscling in” on a “man’s world.”
The Sporting Life of Philadelphia carried correspondence on its “cycling department” page of 24th September 1892 which showed this mockery could descend to generalised personal attacks:
“Is It Possible That No Pretty Women Ride Bicycles,” asked the newspaper, with the correspondent answering his own question (there’s no byline but it’s got to be a ‘he’) “though the [girl] riders may look healthy and happy they possess no claims on beauty whatsoever.”
John Peterson had written to the Morning Advertiser to complain about “Ugly girls and bicycles.”
According to he “a women pumping a bicycle is an ungainly, ungraceful spectacle. A handsome woman would as soon think of going down town in a pair of stoga boots and plug hat as to ride a bicycle publicly. The ugly girls don’t care. They are reckless.”
Perhaps this sort of editorial mockery was offputting to some would-be women bicyclists but, clearly, not all: bicycling was wildly popular with middle class women of the 1890s.
Detroit wasn’t the only city to have a women-only cycling club. Chicago also had a chapter of the Unique Cycling Club and it had strict rules on clothing: no skirts were allowed to be worn over bloomers. “Two members who disobeyed this rule…met with a punishment they will not forget soon,” recounted a story in the Wheelman, the weekly magazine of the League of American Wheelmen. They had their skirts ripped from them, in public, by “strong armed members.” Club member Mrs Langdon said: “The clubs rules are made to be kept and not be broken.”
Beneath a story about this tale in New York World in June 1895, there’s a list of rules about bicycling etiquette for women. No doubt the rules were commonly breached, hence the need for codification:
Don’t be a fright.
Don’t faint on the road.
Don’t wear a man’s cap.
Don’t wear tight garters.
Don’t forget your toolbag
Don’t attempt a “century.”
Don’t coast. It is dangerous.
Don’t boast of your long rides.
Don’t criticize people’s “legs.”
Don’t wear loud hued leggings.
Don’t cultivate a “bicycle face.”
Don’t refuse assistance up a hill.
Don’t wear clothes that don’t fit.
Don’t “talk bicycle” at the table
Don’t neglect a “light’s out” cry.
Don’t wear jewelry while on a tour.
Don’t race. Leave that to the scorchers.
Don’t wear laced boots. They are tiresome.
Don’t imagine everybody is looking at you.
Don’t go to church in your bicycle costume.
Don’t wear laced boots. They are tiresome.
Don’t keep your mouth open on dirty roads.
Don’t converse while in a scorching position.
Don’t go out after dark without a male escort.
Don’t contest the right of way with cable cars.
Don’t wear a garden party hat with bloomers.
Don’t wear white kid gloves. Silk is the thing.
Don’t chew gum. Exercise your jaws in private.
Don’t tempt fate by riding too near the curbstone
Don’t ask, “What do you think of my bloomers?”
Don’t use bicycle slang. Leave that to the boys.
Don’t discuss bloomers with every man you know.
Don’t think you look as pretty as every fashion plate.
Don’t go out without a needle, thread and thimble.
Don’t allow your dear little Fido to accompany you
Don’t try to have every article of your attire “match.”
Don’t let your golden hair be hanging down your back.
Don’t scratch a match on the seat of your bloomers.
Don’t appear in public until you have learned to ride well.
Don’t overdo things. Let cycling be a recreation, not a labor.
Don’t ignore the laws of the road because you are a woman.
Don’t try to ride in your brother’s clothes “to see how it feels.”
Don’t throw your legs over the handlebars and coast down hill
Don’t scream if you meet a cow. If she sees you first, she will run.
Don’t cultivate everything that is up to date because you ride a wheel.
Don’t emulate your brother’s attitude if he rides parallel with the ground.
Don’t undertake a long ride if you are not confident of performing it easily.
Don’t appear to be up on “records” and “record smashing.” That is sporty.
Photographs of women cyclists in the 1890s give lie to Mr Peterson’s claims that women cyclists were somehow less comely in the face than women who didn’t take to life a wheel.
The woman on the right in the US picture above looks an awful lot like a certain UK Olympic gold medallist.
And here’s the gold medallist in question, Victoria Pendleton, clothed in Rational dress of the 1890s for a promotional photoshoot:
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