Friday, September 04, 2009

women awheel, 1896

Few of those now with us can recall the time when bicycles were far more prevalent than cars, SUVs, crossovers, pickups, and minivans, and when cycling was a valuable step toward the liberation of women from the confines of Victorian repression.

Looking for something else, I found an article on women bicyclists in 1896. It's from the Reivew of Reviews of that year. Here's the whole item:


THERE is an article in the Nineteenth Century, by Dr. W. H. Fenton, entitled "A Medical View of Cycling for Ladies." Dr. Fenton — sensible man that he is — recognizes that, far from being dangerous to health, cycling has done more to improve the health of women than almost anything that has ever been invented:
Let it at once be said, an organically sound woman can cycle with as much impunity as a man. Thank heaven, we know now that this is not one more of the sexual problems of the day. Sex has nothing to do with it, beyond the adaptation of machine to dress and dress to machine. Women are capable of great physical improvement where the opportunity exists. Dress even now heavily handicaps them. How fatiguing, and dangerous were heavy petticoats and flowing skirts in cycling even a few years ago, the plucky pioneers alone can tell us.


Inappropriate dress has a certain number of chills to account for. When fair practice has been made, and the 'hot stage,' so to speak, is over, the feet, ankles, neck and arms get very cold when working up against wind. Gaiters or spats, high collars, close-fitting sleeves meet this difficulty. Summer or winter it is far safer to wear warm absorbent underclothing and avoid cotton.

The diseases of women take a front place in our social life; but if looked into, 90 per cent, of them are functional ailments, begotten of ennui and lack of opportunity of some means of working off their superfluous, muscular, nervous, and organic energy. The effect of cycling, within the physical capacity of a woman, acts like a charm for gout, rheumatism and indigestion. Sleeplessness, so-called 'nerves,' and all those petty miseries for which the 'liver' is so often made the scapegoat, disappear in the most extraordinary way with the fresh air inhaled, and with the tissue destruction and reconstruction effected by exercise and exhilaration.


The large abdominal muscles do little in riding down hill or on level ground; but in hill-climbing great strain is thrown upon them. There are many reasons why women should not overtax this group. Already thousands of women, qualifying for general invalidism, have been rescued by cycling. Women are very subject to varicose veins in the legs. Cycling often rids them of this trouble. A girl who has to stand for hours and hours serving behind a counter gets relief untold from an evening spin on her 'bike.' Her circulation has been improved, and the aches and pains which would have shortly made an old woman of her have gone, and a sense of exhilaration and relief has taken their place.

{Lady cyclists at the cycle track, Grand Hall, Olympia, Kensington, London, March 1896. Notice that the ladies are not conventionally wasp-waisted; presumably it was ok not to wear those horrendous whale-bone corsets if you were a bike racer. Source: Mlle Serpolette at Olympia,}

{Society ladies cycling in Hyde Park, London, 1896. From "Vanity Fair" (London, June 1896). These women and the ones in the illustration that follows definitely are confined in the tight corsets of the time. Source: Heritage Images}

{Fashions for Cycling, The Ladies Standard Magazine, Vol. XVII, No. 4 (June 1897). You might think that the artist made these women appear to have smaller waists than is anatomically possible, but wikipedia says "wasp waist measurements of 18 to 16 inches were not uncommon and were often striven for as the reigning standard of feminine beauty in the period." Source: Library of Congress}

{Lady racing cyclist, Lancaster Park, Christchurch [ca. 1896]; source: Christ Church City Libraries}

{Women's cycling attire in 1896; source:}

This issue of The Review of reviews contains a few other articles on the pervasiveness and benefits of cycling, including:
1. The World's Sporting Impulse, by Charles D. Lanier, It would be weak to heap bicycle statistics on the heads of readers who have each day a procession of evidence on every smoothly paved street that the world is awheel. . . . Nowadays the world may easily be divided into people who wheel and people who do not, and the former class seem to hold the balance of power, possessing as they do the solidarity due to this single enthusiasm. The bicycle has become a power in economics and politics. . . .


SARAH A. TOOLEY gives in The Woman at Home a pleasing sketch of Princess Maud of Wales, and does justice to the royal maiden's independence of character and love of fun. Incidental evidence is borne to the way in which the cycle is ousting the horse in the circles which have most influence on fashion:
Knowing how devoted Princess Maud is to animals, and that she has always been the best equestrienne in the family, her friends have felt some surprise at the enthusiasm with which she has taken to the bicycle. At one time she rode her saddle horse daily, but now that beautiful creature sighs in vain for his fair and fearless rider, for the horse of wheels has quite superseded him in her favor. A characteristic reason was given for this change by a man on the estate. 'Yes,' he said to me, 'the Princesses don't often come out on horseback now — you see they finds the bicycles so much handier.'

It would be impossible to find a more graceful and expert rider of the bicycle than Princess Maud. She sits perfectly upright, without the slightest approach to the stoop which so many cyclists seem unable to avoid, and her feet work the pedals without any apparent effort. Her cycling dress is of black or navy blue, and consists of a short, narrow, serge skirt, tight fitting jacket and vest, and a small hat turned up at the sides, or a toque to match her dress. She appears to find this costume easy and comfortable and has never adopted any approach to the rational dress. Mud has no terrors for her, for I have had the pleasure of seeing her spinning along the Sandringham roads just after a thaw, when one hardly knew where to walk to avoid the slush. She is a very rapid rider, and is generally seen well in advance of her sister, the Princess Victoria, who, though an equally graceful rider, is less adventurous. When the Princesses are out cycling it will generally be found that their mother's pony carriage is not far away.
At Mentmore, too, where one might have thought the cult of St. Ladas would cast out any foreign god, we learn from Fred. Dolman's paper in Cassell's Family Magazine, the bicycle has taken the place of the pony in the affections of Lord Rosebery's two sons.

*This topic has interested me since, some years ago, I was helping my daughter review notes for an American History exam and read how invalidism was an indirect product of the economic prosperity that the first few generations of US citizens enjoyed. Her text book said the expansion of the middle class permitted a growing specialization of the sexes, and women, in leaving the workplace and taking responsibility for managing servants in the home, would — often enough — develop this invalidism. This evolutionary change was accompanied by the movement to distinguish between morally pure and strong womenfolk and morally corrupt and weak men — the dressing of women in white clothing and placing them on pedestals. Some sources on invalidism:


Anonymous said...

All I ask - and I don't think it's very much - is that if people want to use material from my website is that they ask me first, and provide a link to the appropriate page of the site. What a pity you choose to do neither! Anyway, for anyone interested the url for Mlle Serpolete at Olympia is . Original research, by the way, not lifted off the net... Leon

Anonymous said...

All I ask - and I don't think it's very much - is that if people want to use material from my website is that they ask me first, and provide a link to the appropriate page of the site. What a pity you choose to do neither! Anyway, for anyone interested the url for Mlle Serpolete at Olympia is . Original research, by the way, not lifted off the net... Leon

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