Sunday, October 2, 2016

Bicycles! More Than Transportation for Women in the 1890s

I know. This is the third consecutive post focused, at least in part, on the bicycle. This is the last one, I promise. I couldn't leave the topic without sharing what I've learned about the role bicycles played in the lives of American women in the 1890s – and  why having a bicycle in 1898 was so significant to Sarah Eva Howe of Carrollton, Kentucky.

A bit of history on the two-wheeler: Online sources give various dates for the beginning of the bicycle, but they seem to agree that the first versions of the modern bicycle came along in the early 1800s. A timeline reports that the word "bicycle" was coined in 1869, the same year solid rubber tires replaced iron ones. In 1889, air-filled rubber tires introduced a much smoother ride, which boosted cycling's popularity.

Five years later, as technical improvements evolved in bicycle design, fashion designers offered bicycle-riding attire for women – and that made all the difference.
From Edgefield Advertiser [1]
Women famous for leadership in women's rights and suffrage began riding and talking about bicycles – and they got publicity for doing so.
  • In 1895, temperance leader and suffragette Frances Willard wrote in her book A Wheel Within a Wheel that the first time she felt personal freedom was when she learned to ride a bicycle. To her, mastering the bicycle was equal to mastering control of her own destiny.[2]
  • In the same year, Annie "Londonberry" pedaled around the globe when someone bet $10,000 that she couldn't do it.
  • In 1896, Margaret Valentine Le Long, alone and armed with a pistol, rode her bicycle from Chicago to San Francisco.[3]
  • Women's rights activist Susan B. Anthony claimed the bicycle gave women "a feeling of freedom and self-reliance" and said bicycling did "more to emancipate women than anything else in the world."[4]
I am amazed at the wealth of available information about the impact of the bicycle on the lives of women in the 1890s, the "golden age of bicycling." The points I listed here don't begin to cover the topic.

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll understand why I am confident that Sarah knew about these famous women and their thoughts on the bicycle. No wonder she was excited to be given a "wheel" of her own. This item from her scrapbooks takes a comical view of women learning to ride bicycles. Sarah mentions riding in long skirts. Maybe the new cycling fashions hadn't reached Carrollton yet.

Yes, we cycled in long skirts!

About this time bicycles came in force to Carrollton, but I didn't get mine till 1898, which was also when I began seeing so much of Will Salyers as he had the bicycle shop.

Will says he remembers me as always having Solon [her dog] with me tho I was older than [the girl with pigtails in] this picture.

I haven't found a photo of Sarah on a bicycle yet, but her clippings and comments have been catalysts for a lot of research about the impact bicycles had on the lives of women in the 1890s. If you're interested in learning how the craze may have changed things for women in your own ancestry, the links in this post could take you to some thought-provoking facts and images. Here are a few more excellent resources:
How the Bicycle Paved the Way for Women's Rights

Cycling ensemble, circa 1895, in the collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute


[1] Edgefield Advertiser, July 29, 1896; accessed at

[2] An illustrated article, Alone and Awheel From Chicago to San Francisco by Margaret Valentine Le Long, is online in PDF format at the Sports Library & Digital Collection website.

[3] Source: Two in the Wild: Tales of Adventure from Friends, Mothers, and Daughters,  compiled and edited in 1999 by Susan Fox Rogers; published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing. Accessed 10 September 2016 via Google Books. This book's section on the history of women and bicycles is both informative and delightful to read.

 [4] article "Bicycling and Feminism." Original source: Vivanco, Luis Antonio (2013). Reconsidering the Bicycle: An Anthropological Perspective on a New (old) Thing. Routledge. pp. 32–34.

1 comment:

ScotSue said...

A fascinating account of the history of cycling for women. I especially like the illustrations you feature. .