Bicycling for Ladies
It is needless to say that a bicycling costume was a prerequisite. This consisted of a skirt and blouse of tweed, with belt, rolling collar, and loose cravat, the skirt three inches from the ground; a round straw hat, and walking-shoes with gaiters. It was a simple, modest suit, to which no person of common sense could take exception.
As nearly as I can make out, reducing the problem to actual figures, it took me about three months, with an average of fifteen minutes’ practice daily, to learn, first, to pedal; second, to turn; third, to dismount; and fourth, to mount independently this most mysterious animal.
January 20th, 1894 will always be a red-letter bicycle day, because although I had already mounted several times with no hand on the rudder, some good friend had always stood by to lend moral support; but summoning all my force, and, most forcible of all, what Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson declares to be the two essential elements decision and precision, I mounted and started off alone.
From that hour the spell was broken; Gladys was no more a mystery: I had learned all her kinks, had put a bridle in her teeth, and touched her smartly with the whip of victory. Consider, ye who are of a considerable chronology: in about thirteen hundred minutes, or, to put it more mildly, in twenty-two hours, or, to put it most mildly of all, in less than a single day as the almanac reckons time but practically in two days of actual practice amid the delightful surroundings of the great outdoors, and inspired by the bird-songs, the color and fragrance of an English posy-garden, in the company of devoted and pleasant comrades, I had made myself master of the most remarkable, ingenious, and inspiring motor ever yet devised upon this planet. Moral: Go thou and do likewise!
- A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride a Bicycle, by Frances E. Willard, 1895
It’s easy, for us, in the 21st century, to take personal transportation for granted. Even if we don’t own a bicycle or car, it’s usually not too difficult to travel by bus or train; or, indeed, by airplane to most destinations in the world. But until the 19th century most folks did not travel beyond their local area. Journeys were complicated, and only safe during the day: brigands and highwaymen ruled the darkness, so one could only travel as far as a horse could ride in a single day.
From the 1830s, the railways opened up new horizons, and people started to take holidays. The first bicycles, in the 1870s, were difficult to use, requiring athletic ability and skill to ride. Nevertheless, a bicycle did not require food and stabling like a horse; it was obviously the machine of the future. Queen Victoria helped make them fashionable by buying some tricycles, and other members of the Royal Family started to ride bicycles.
But it was not until the 1890s that their design evolved sufficiently – with the combination of ‘safety bicycles’ and pneumatic tyres – to provide a viable option for personal transportation. As cycles now became easier to ride, mass-production brought down prices and, soon, they were within the budget of ordinary working folk.
The ability to travel independently is empowering. In addition, as women learned to ride bikes, their costumes had to be adapted. Corsets disappeared. That was even more empowering. This museum celebrates this era of change, a time when the bicycle started to challenge the horse for supremacy of the road. When women bought bicycles and learned simple maintenance tasks as a matter of principle.
Cars and motorcycles were only a decade away. But for this short time, from the mid-nineties to the first few years of the twentieth century, the bicycle represented a freedom that had never been tasted before. Alongside this revolution in transportation, the camera became simple to use and affordable and printing presses churned out new magazines. Consumer society, as we know it today, came of age in the 1890s.
You’re welcome to journey here, from the first days of the safety bicycle until the years after WW2, following the evolution of ladies bicycles and tricycles. An interesting aspect is how little their design changed in those sixty years. And they did not change much either in the next sixty years, up to the present day. I hope you enjoy this brief exploration of bicycling for ladies…