Speed, Exercise, and Freedom for Women

The rise of bicycles didn’t just make physical activity an enjoyable pastime in America. It actually played a role in women’s rights, allowing them access to less restrictive clothing and the opportunity to journey farther from the home.

Women standing with bikes

“What made the bicycle truly liberating was its fundamental incompatibility with many of the limits placed on women.”

Photo by Fotolia/petunyia

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Biking in the US is growing in popularity. Indeed, since the introduction of the machine two centuries ago new generations have discovered and rediscovered the benefits of this simple means of transportation. In The Mechanical Horse (University of Texas Press, 2016), Margaret Guroff explains how bicycles have played an integral role in this country’s society, encouraging paved streets, long-distance travel, and routine exercise. Because of their accessibility and the ease with which they made other things possible, bikes have opened the door for wide horizons of thought for those in all avenues of life.

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In the 1890s, bikes got lighter as well as more comfortable. The average weight of a bicycle dropped by more than half during the decade’s first five years, falling from fifty pounds to twenty-three. And since new gearings were able to mimic wheels larger than those of the largest Ordinary, speed records fell too. In 1894, while riding a pneumatic-tired safety around a track in Buffalo, New York, the racer John S. Johnson went a mile in just over one minute and thirty-five seconds, a rate of nearly thirty-eight miles an hour. He beat the previous mile record for a safety by fourteen seconds, and the record for an Ordinary by nearly a minute — and the record for a running horse by one-tenth of a second.

The Ordinary — which had by then acquired the derisive nickname of “penny-farthing,” after the old British penny and much smaller farthing (quarter-penny) coins — became obsolete. High-wheelers that had sold for 150 to 300 dollars just a year or two earlier were going for as little as 10.

The first safeties, meanwhile, cost an average of 150 dollars during a time when the average worker earned something like 12 dollars a week. At such prices, the new bikes targeted the same upscale demographic as the tricycle. But a strong market for safeties among well-to-do women goosed production, and competition among manufacturers reduced prices, making the bikes affordable to more would-be riders — and further fueling demand. In 1895, America’s three hundred bicycle companies produced 500,000 safeties at an average price of 75 dollars, according to one encyclopedia’s yearbook. Even manufacturers were surprised at the demand among women, who thrilled to the new machine’s exhilarating ride. As one female journalist wrote, “If a pitying Providence should suddenly fit light, strong wings to the back of a toiling tortoise, that patient cumberer of the ground could hardly feel a more astonishing sense of exhilaration than a woman experiences when first she becomes a mistress of her wheel.”

It wasn’t just that women enjoyed the physical sensation of riding — the rush of balancing and cruising. What made the bicycle truly liberating was its fundamental incompatibility with many of the limits placed on women. Take clothing, for example. Starting at puberty, women were expected to wear heavy floor-length skirts, rigid corsets, and tight, pointy-toed shoes. These garments made any sort of physical exertion difficult, as young girls sadly discovered. “I ‘ran wild’ until my sixteenth birthday, when the hampering long skirts were brought, with their accompanying corset and high heels,” recalled the temperance activist Frances Willard in an 1895 memoir. “I remember writing in my journal, in the first heartbreak of a young human colt taken from its pleasant pasture, ‘Altogether, I recognize that my occupation is gone.’” Reformers had been calling for more sensible clothing for women since the 1850s, when the newspaper editor Amelia Bloomer wore the baggy trousers that critics named after her, but rational arguments hadn’t made much headway.

Where reason failed, though, recreation succeeded. The drop-frame safety did allow women to ride in dresses, but not in the swagged, voluminous frocks of the Victorian parlor. Female cyclists had to don simple, “short” (that is, ankle-length) skirts in order to avoid getting them caught under the bicycle’s rear wheel. And to keep them from flying up, some women had tailors put weights in their hems or line their skirt fronts with leather. Other women, like Angeline Allen, shucked their dresses altogether and wore bloomers. The display that reporters had deemed shocking in 1893 became commonplace just a few years later as more and more women started riding. “The eye of the spectator has long since become accustomed to costumes once conspicuous,” wrote an American journalist in 1895. “Bloomer and tailor-made alike ride on unchallenged.” (For her part, Allen may well have given up riding, but not scandal; she progressed to posing onstage in scanty attire for re-creations of famous paintings, a risqué popular amusement.)

Bicyclists’ corsets changed too, though less publicly. The corset of the 1880s was an armpit-to-hip garment stiffened with whalebone stays, which helped the hips support heavy skirts that hung from the waist. But while corsets braced women’s torsos, they also weakened their wearers, squeezing women’s lungs and displacing other internal organs, making deep breaths impossible. Out of necessity, female cyclists looked for alternatives, and many chose another garment that had been advocated by dress reformers decades earlier: a sturdy, waist-length cotton camisole with shoulder straps. When introduced in the 1870s, this garment was called an “emancipation waist,” and it featured a horizontal band of buttons at the hem, to which drawers or a skirt could be attached. Later versions were named “health waist” or, finally, “bicycle waist.” One 1896 model included elastic insets; its maker promised the wearer “perfect comfort — a sound pair of lungs — a graceful figure and rosy cheeks.” All for 1 dollars, postpaid.

If women’s clothing constrained them, so did their role in society. More Americans than ever worked outside the home; by 1880, farmers made up a little less than half of the country’s labor force. But even among the urban working class, married women typically stayed home during the day to cook, clean, tend to children, and often manufacture homemade goods for sale. Meanwhile, their husbands, sons, and unmarried daughters toiled in factories, shops, offices, and other people’s houses. Many Americans came to believe that men and women naturally inhabited two separate spheres: men held sway in business, politics, and other public arenas, and women took charge of the home. For most middle-class women, respectability meant appearing in public only under certain circumstances — such as while shopping — and making as small an impression as possible. “A true lady walks the streets unostentatiously and with becoming reserve,” instructed an 1889 etiquette manual. “She appears unconscious of all sights and sounds which a lady ought not to perceive.”

In addition, an unmarried young woman didn’t go out without a chaperone, usually an older female relative. Being seen on an unchaperoned date, even at a restaurant or other public place, could be cause for social ruin. An 1887 etiquette guide warned against sailing excursions, for example, lest the boat be becalmed overnight: “A single careless act of this sort may be remembered spitefully against a girl for many years.”

The bicycle challenged all that. Wives who had stayed close to home — venturing out only on foot, by trolley, or, if wealthy, with a driver and horse-drawn carriage — were suddenly able to travel miles on their own. Being so mobile, and so visible, was a revelation to many. “The world is a new and another sphere under the bicyclist’s observation,” wrote one female journalist. “Here is a process of locomotion that is absolutely at her command.” If a woman’s sphere begins to feel too small, wrote another, “the sufferer can do no better than to flatten her sphere to a circle, mount it, and take to the road.”

As for unmarried women, manners mavens urged them to cycle only with chaperones, but the rule didn’t take. “New social laws have been enacted to meet the requirements of the new order,” reported one newspaper editor in 1896. “Parents who will not allow their daughters to accompany young men to the theatre without chaperonage allow them to go bicycle-riding alone with young men. This is considered perfectly proper.” According to the editor, the reason for this difference was the “good comradeship” of the bicycling set. Fellow enthusiasts looked out for one another on the road, he wrote — so in a way, every ride was supervised. The historian Ellen Gruber Garvey suggests a second possible reason: propriety already allowed unmarried women to ride horses unchaperoned. Bicycles, as a less costly equivalent, may simply have extended this freedom down the economic scale.

But the same things that made the bicycle liberating also made it threatening. Moralists warned that skimpy costumes and unsupervised travel would lead to wanton behavior. “Immodest bicycling by young women is to be deplored,” declared Charlotte Smith, founder of the Women’s Rescue League, a group that lobbied Congress on behalf of “fallen women.” “Bicycling by young women has helped to swell the ranks of reckless girls, who finally drift into the standing army of outcast women.” Smith reported that her tours of brothels and interviews with prostitutes confirmed this.

Physicians — who at the time shouldered responsibility for patients’ moral as well as physical well-being — had their own concerns. One visited New York’s Coney Island and saw a sixteen-year-old cyclist get drunk on wine provided by a beautiful but nefarious older woman. “She looked like an innocent child, but was away from home influence,” the doctor reported. Many physicians fretted that pressure from the bicycle seat would teach girls how to masturbate, a practice thought to lead to spiritual and psychological decline. Climbing hills on a bike could excite “feelings hitherto unknown to, and unrealized by, the young girl,” wrote one doctor in 1898. (Boys faced the same danger: pressure on the perineum would call their attention to the area, warned one doctor, “and so lead to a great increase in masturbation in the timid [and] to early sexual indulgence in the more venturous.”)

The bicycle’s peril was medical as well as moral. In the late nineteenth century, many saw physical energy as a finite resource that had to be carefully parceled out, not a power that could be renewed through exercise. The fashionable malaise of neurasthenia was only one of the disorders thought to be caused by a depletion of energies. Overexertion could also cause tuberculosis, scoliosis, hernias, heart disease, and other maladies, doctors believed. Safely sedentary middle-class women, who frequently suffered from varicose veins and other consequences of annual pregnancies, were prone to fatigue; one Boston writer called them “a sex which is born tired,” adding that “society sometimes seems little better than a hospital for invalid women.” Particularly for women in heavy dresses and constricting corsets, any activity that raised the heart rate could seem more likely to be the cause of fainting and listlessness than their remedy. Opponents of the bicycle latched onto this perception, arguing that riding would cost women more effort than they could afford. “The exertion necessary to riding with speed ... is productive of an excitation of nervous and physical energy that is anything but beneficial,” Charlotte Smith warned. “If a halt is not called soon, 75 per cent of the cyclists will be an army of invalids within the next ten years.”

But even as Smith made her dire predictions, Americans’ fear of cardiovascular exercise was beginning to lift. For decades, health reformers had trumpeted the benefits of fitness, and during the 1880s, the United States saw a spike in organized physical activity. Citizens of America’s growing cities tried new sports such as baseball and football, and exercise advocates built the first public playgrounds and pushed for physical education for both boys and girls. Doctors continued to caution against overexertion, but they acknowledged that, in moderation, fresh air and exercise tended to improve patients’ health. The high-wheel bicycle of the 1880s proved the benefits of regular exercise to those who could ride it; proponents made extravagant claims for the risky machine’s ability to restore well-being. “For constipation, sleeplessness, dyspepsia, and many other ills which flesh is heir to, not to speak of melancholy, — all are curable, or certainly to be improved, by the new remedy, ‘Bicycle,’” wrote a Texas physician in 1883. “It is always an excellent prescription for the convalescents, and nearly always for chronic invalids.”

Not everyone could take the prescription, though. High-wheeled cycling and rigorous team sports were acceptable only for young men. The new games deemed suitable for mixed company, such as lawn tennis and golf, were far less taxing — and therefore far less likely to lead to noticeable improvements in fitness. As for working out on your own, the recommended options were either too costly (horseback riding) or too boring (indoor calisthenics) to gain much popularity. As a result, many more Americans of the 1880s thought they ought to exercise than actually did it. So when the safety bicycle appeared at the end of the decade and Americans began riding in large numbers — an estimated two million by 1896, out of a population of about seventy million — few were certain how such vigorous physical activity would affect them.


Reprinted with permission from The Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life by Margaret Guroff and published by the University of Texas Press, 2016.