The rosy cheeks may have been the result of imagined exertion along this improved, macadamised road in Detroit but the mascara and the lipstick seem to suggest the artist wanted to portray this fictional young rider as a confident, independent woman, a woman who cared about her appearance despite the silly medical scares of the time such as ‘bicycle face’ and female-specific ailments closer to the saddle area. Seascape artist Seth Arca Whipple (1855-1901) painted this woman into a road scene for an 1897 competition organised by the League of American Wheelmen. It won the competition (maybe because of the product placements; check out the number of LAW logos, including the woman’s brooch) but the painting later disappeared from view. It’s owned by the Detroit Historical Society and is now in storage at the Detroit Historical Museum.
It was the cover image for Roads Were Not Built For Cars since almost the beginning of the research for the book. I bought the rights to the image for use on the cover and also paid a visit to the museum for a personal look at Whipple’s work, an 18 x 23 inch watercolour dripping with historicity. However, as my Kickstarter campaign for the book was successful I commissioned another cover, which backers will be able to choose as an alternative to the Whipple painting. But I won’t be losing Whipple’s artwork, it will be featured prominently in the book because it tells an arresting story; a story not just about the emancipation of women but about how cyclists played a key and influential role in improving roads before motorcars came along and stole their thunder. (The US and UK motor lobby casually airbrushed cyclists out of highway history in the 1920s and 1930s; in Nazi Germany the airbrushing was more overt with regulations against describing the beginnings of German automobilism having sprung from cycling).
Close-ups of features in the painting – which is pretty much an advert for the League of American Wheelmen’s Good Roads campaign – bring the varied stories to life and I’ll be dissecting the painting in great detail in the book.
Oh, and the drivers mentioned in the headline aren’t of the motorised kind, but teamsters or horse drawn carriage drivers. Check out the text in Whipple’s poster.
And here’s the alternative cover: