Bicycling in the Victorian Era and Lady Riders

Bicycling in the Victorian Era was a popular pastime with men and women everywhere owning bicycles. However, it was women who found cycling a freeing experience and in fact, America’s devoted feminist and social reformer, Susan B. Anthony, coined the bicycle the “freedom machine.” The president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Frances Willard, thought so highly of the bicycle she wrote an entire book and noted the bicycle’s “exhilarating motion … and the gladdening effect of its acquaintance … [on her] health and disposition.”[1]

bicycling in the Victoria Era - Frances Willard

Frances Willard. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The popularity of the bike also resulted in women demanding fashions and footwear made specifically for bicycling in the Victorian Era. For example, ladies’ cycling fashions were finely tailored with “neat, simple lines” and these styles came in a variety of fabrics. Bicycling footwear was also available in a variety of sizes and shapes to fit the diversity of female rider’s legs, although such footwear usually consisted of low shoes or boots.

Bicycling in the Victorian  Era - Victorian woman in breeches

Victorian woman in breeches. Author’s Collection.

Despite the popularity of bicycling in the Victorian Era, there were claims that “Bicycle Face” was affecting eager riders, both male and female. Bicycle face was described as “[an] earnest and grave expression usually worn by the rider while making his paces, and various suggestions [have been] … ventured as to the nervous effects that it forebodes.”[2] It was noted that both male and female bicyclers were suffering from the disease, which then resulted in some Victorian doctors giving warnings to women, girls, and middle-aged men to avoid excessive cycling to prevent the problem. Yet, despite all the hype, it was nothing more than a fictitious disease.

The bicycle craze, Author’s collection.

Because of the popularity of bicycling in the Victoria era many people took cycling trips. Robert Pittis Scott, a multi-millionaire inventor of devices and machines for canning, was one person who bicycled extensively throughout Europe. His brother Charles also accompanied him on this pleasure trip. The trip happened in 1885, a year after Madame Tussaud’s wax museum moved to its current location on Marylebone Road in London.

Bicycling in the Victoria ERa - tandem bicycle

John Player and Sons cigarette card (front and back) showing a couple on the “Invincible” tandem bicycle. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

Scott’s cycling trip also inspired him to write Cycling Art, Energy, and Locomotion. It was published in 1889, the same year that the famous American journalist Nellie Bly began her trip around the world in eighty days. Scott’s book discussed the importance of bicycling along with the development of bicycles, tricycles, and manned-motor carriages. Moreover, among the chapters in Scott’s cycling book was one titled, “The Ladies’ Bicycle.” That chapter is provided here verbatim.

PROBABLY the most daring innovation the ladies have made in the domain of sports and pastime within the past decade consists in their riding the bicycle. There is no earthly reason why they should not ride a bicycle if they wish to; that is to say, those bicycles of the modern type especially made for them. At least no objection can be urged that would not equally apply to tandem and single tricycles.

Notwithstanding the above fact, there is and has been a reluctance on the part of the ladies to take up the two-wheeler, and probably a greater reluctance on the part of the community at large to countenance the step. It is needless to discuss the propriety of ladies riding tricycles; the question has been settled by themselves by simply riding; and there is the end of it, they came, saw, rode, and conquered.

Granted that a woman may ride a tricycle with propriety, it would seem a shame to deny her the right to the less cumbersome and much neater mount. The ladies’ bicycle certainly is the more modest appearing, if we were used to both, and it takes much less work to run it; if it does not thrive, it will mean simply that the entire system of ladies’ cycle riding must go. Common prejudice cannot long sustain such a sense less discrimination as to keep her on the “trike.” Tandems, of course, have an advantage in that the spectators can imagine that the man is doing all the work, which is generally about as true as that he does all the work when the family cook-stove is to be moved. No better illustration of the change of public opinion in the matter of ladies’ cycle riding can be had, than in the little story told of Mr. James K. Starley, relating an event which is said to have occurred some years back on the streets of Coventry.

This indefatigable genius of modern cycle art was umping one of his early tricycles about the nooks and corners of Smithford, Hereford, Jordan Well, Little and Much Park, in the ancient city, amid the jeers and contemptuous sneers of the lusty silk weavers and cynical watchmakers; whereupon, being goaded to desperation by their taunts, he rose and exclaimed, “Why, the time will come when ladies will ride these things through your streets.” And ladies have long since ridden them through the streets of Coventry, as well as through the streets of many other towns, without compromising themselves or exciting undue comment, while the noble city of its birth has become the centre of modern cycledom.

Social forms stick, often in spite of reason, and it may be a long time before it will be generally conceded that woman is in her legitimate sphere when perched upon the saddle of either a tricycle or bicycle, and if the lack of physical development continues to be one of the chief angelic characteristics of womankind in the mind of man, the time will be very remote indeed. But should it be discovered that less seraphic and more muscular tissue tends to make us all happier, then perhaps the time and doctors’ bills will be shorter.

It is scarcely necessary to explain the construction of the bicycle intended for ladies’ use; suffice it to say, that a modern Rover Safety is used in which the backbone drops down to a level with the cranks, and the rider can step between the wheels and rise into the saddle by the pedal mount; not a difficult task, to judge from the grace and ease with which women accomplish the feat every day. It is not within the province of this book to pass encomiums upon any tribe, class, or individual, nor to compliment any sex, but it would be a heinous selfishness not to give the ladies some credit when it is so justly their due, as in this matter of the “bike.” When, on the streets of Washington, I see apparently timid girls make the pedal mount and move off so naturally and adroitly, the feeling of comparative superior physical dexterity, generally accredited to our sex, suffers a tremendous blow within me. In meeting these fair riders at their homes it is quite evident that they still retain the old-time graces and accomplishments common to the sex which men delight to honor. All this proves once for all and conclusively that some of the ideas entertained by mankind about womankind approach very nearly to the sphere of unmitigated humbug. Below will be found an energetic opinion of one of the ladies, as chronicled in the Bicycling World.

“WOMEN, BICYCLES, AND DOCTORS.”

“Being a member of the L.A.W., I naturally see the World, and I have beside me a copy of your paper, in which I notice an article on ‘Why a woman should ride.’ I agree with the writer in that the ladies should ride, and from my own experience I have found it improves my health and complexion’ very much. I have only been riding since last June, but I am stronger now, and enjoy living much better than I ever did before that time. The pains and the doctors have both gone, where, I don’t know and care less, so long as they have gone and so long as I still have my bicycle and can take my ride every day. It seems to give me life, and I feel the life-giving exhilaration born of this splendid exercise after I take a five-mile run around the city, or, perchance, the country. It is such sport to leave far behind fast trotting horses, and men and women who are obliged to take the street-car every place they go. And what could be more amusing than to see some or all in a car rush to that side to see a ‘lady riding a bicycle.’ I sometimes get just a trifle angry when I hear some old feminine fuss and feathers say, ‘Oh, isn’t that disgraceful to see a woman riding a man’s bicycle!’ They, I suppose, never read the papers, as they would scarcely ever have time after working, worrying, and scolding their husbands (if they are lucky enough to have one). If they could just for an hour have the pleasure of riding as I do, I think the cross, fretful, and worrying fits would be few and far between. I could not do without my bicycle now. Sometimes when I have been out I come home laughing, and as I trot my five-year-old baby on my knee, she sometimes says, ‘What’s happened that’s so funny? tell me.’ And as I take her little hands and we fly around the room together, I feel that no woman on earth is as happy as I. Even after riding ten miles I do not feel tired, but come home feeling better than when I started. My husband is very much pleased that I ride, and here I will mention that the advantage in having a lady’s Safety is that either can ride. I actually think sometimes that my bicycle is keeping me too young in actions, and that I am not growing old gracefully as I ought to.

Now I don’t want any one to infer from this that I am one of those strong-minded women that want to vote, and keep the men in petticoats. Oh, no, indeed! I am very well satisfied to let the men run this government as it is, or as it will be after March next.”

Grace E.S.”[3]

References:

  • [1] F. E. Willard, A Wheel Within a Wheel (1895), p. 53.
  • [2] The Phrenological Journal and Science of Health 99-100 (1895), p. 239.
  • [3] R. P. Scott, Cycling Art, Energy, and Locomotion (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1889), p. 140–43.

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1 Comments

  1. David Pratt on February 3, 2023 at 2:33 pm

    Now I have to wonder if there wasn’t a women’s story equivalent to this: https://cnyhistoryunfiltered.wordpress.com/2022/05/03/pluck-and-endurance-personified/

    I’d imagine it got even less press than he did, but it would be awesome to find….

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