Dec 16, 2020 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
This week I was perusing the Cause A Frockus archives and stumbled upon our list of intrepid female explorers. It’s a great collection of inspiring women. While each pursued different journeys and tackled unique obstacles, they all had to conquer society’s preset expectations about their gender. Allow me to revisit one quest in particular – Annie Londonberry and her global bike race. Unlike Osa Johnson or Gertrude Bell, Annie’s adventure is perhaps the most relatable of the bunch.
Since the 1890s bicycles have been an accessible means of transportation. While decidedly more expensive during the Victorian era, most bicycle manufacturers offered payment plans to help practically anyone participate in the cycling craze. Not everyone could be a two-wheeled globetrotter like Annie, but women everywhere got to taste a bit of this freedom at the turn of the last century. Vintage bicycling holds a special place in women’s history; please join me for a spin through the past.
If you were to ask people in the early 1800s what they thought of the bicycle you wouldn’t hear glowing reviews. In fact, I suspect most people saw them as a danger to society. This was because the popular style during the mid 1800s was the high wheeler model (also known as the “ordinary bike”). I find the “ordinary” label a misnomer. To my modern eyes this style is extraordinary with its exaggerated proportions. These bikes were as difficult to control as they looked, with their massive front wheel and tiny back wheel. They were challenging enough for the average man to master, but for a woman wearing a dress it was nearly impossible! I imagine it felt lonely atop one’s high wheeler and parking it had to be a precarious undertaking. So while it gets points for showmanship, overall the high wheeler was not a conducive means of conveyance (particularly if you wanted to court a fair maiden). By the 1860s designers took note and introduced more socially-minded offerings. First up was the two seater, next came a tandem model. During this time it wasn’t just the number of riders that doubled, but also the number of wheels. Tricycles and quadracycles were the touring vehicles of choice for a promenade with one’s best gal.
While exciting, these technological improvements offered a false sense of freedom for female riders. Despite the plethora of models, in each of these scenarios women were relegated to the passenger’s seat (or in the case of the tandem, the back seat). Women couldn’t control their trajectory or travel time to a destination. In fact they couldn’t even participate as there weren’t any pedals or steering options for passengers in these early models, just a seat. It’s not surprising that the word “co-pilot” wasn’t coined until the Jazz Age!
But then, in the late 1800s a new bike emerged – the “safety bike.” This style is the forerunner of our modern bike style. It also signaled the first time designers considered a female bicyclist, developing models that would accommodate the voluminous clothing styles of the era. The fashion industry, which had previously designed everything through the lens of “stoic and static elegance,” channeled creativity in a new direction. Variations on divided skirts and bloomers were seen on park grounds nationwide. Bicycling didn’t just give women a chance to travel alone (no matter how short the distance), but it gave them a freedom of expression never before seen. Bicycling was so new that societal guidelines hadn’t been developed. Women were welcome to bike with the newer, more athletic style or in their traditional garments. The bike welcomed you as you were. Elizabeth Cady Stanton captures this liberating approach best. “To sum up, I would say, let women ride …. If some prefer the [bulk] skirts flying in the wind exhausted in the wheels let them run the risk of their folly; If others prefer bloomers let them enjoy their choice- if others prefer knickerbockers, leave them in peace.”
To say that is was smooth sailing (or pedaling) would be a lie. Many men were concerned about women taking to the street on bicycles and soon the medical community translated this moral opinion into a health crisis. Even though doctors saw bicycling as a positive pursuit, they felt excessive cycling would lead to all manner of afflictions. Yet women pressed on and even organized clubs, creating a sort of verbal travel guide outlining the best paths. It might be easy to underestimate the impact the bike had on our female ancestors. You might be thinking about horseback riding or the rituals of the promenade with a dear friend. But bicycling was unique because it could be purely individual. Horses required costly maintenance and a staff, being on foot alone could place you in a dangerous situation. Yet a bicycle was always there, waiting and ready for a journey without a moment’s notice. With the wind in their bonnet, accelerating through the world at a speed they controlled – it had to feel limitless. Geographic boundaries started to blur and possibilities emerged. Here’s what Beatrice Grimshaw had to say about it: “I rode it unchaperoned, mile and miles beyond the limits possible to the soberly trotting horses. The world opened before me.” During a year that has felt more confined than free, let’s all channel Beatrice’s sentiments and embrace some vintage bicycling!