10 December 2010

The Bicycle Girl - 1897


113 years ago, a newspaper article appeared in the Milwaukee Journal about The Bicycle Girl. It was August 14, 1897. An article singing the praises of The Bicycle Girl. All over the world at this time similar articles were being written about the great numbers of women taking "to the wheel". It was an exciting and alluring development, sure, but it was also something that caused great - and positive - societal change.

One of our readers, Cream, sent us the text. It appeared on the Milwaukee Bicycle Collective.

Read the article for yourself. History is repeating itself. After forty years of the bicycle being branded as a largely male-dominated sport or recreation, we're returning to an age where the bicycle was an accepted, respected and equal transport form for Citizen Cyclists of both sexes. These are interesting and exciting times. Just as they were in 1897.

The Bicycle Girl in Milwaukee

"The Milwaukee bicycle girl is all right. She is of all sorts, all sizes, all ages, and all good looking. Sometimes she is very handsome. Bright, vivacious, interesting, wide-awake, and generally “up to snuff.” The Milwaukee bicycle girl is something Milwaukee is proud of.

Sometimes she uses the wheel as an accessory to show off a handsome costume; generally she uses it to get about town. Mostly she loves to ride and knows how. And she is not scarce. You can find her anywhere and everywhere. She rides to business in the morning. She rides home again in the evening. She does much of her hopping a-wheel. She takes long trips to the park and into the country. Of course she likes an escort, but if she doesn’t find one handy, why she can go it alone and do it up brown. She is to be seen at all hours of the day—and night, too, for the matter of that. She rides a good deal at night. When she has no male escort for a night ride she gets a female escort. That is the rule. There are exceptions, of course, but you can’t go by exceptions.

Ting-a-ling-ling! My, how she whizzes by! Nothing meek about her. She knows the rules of the road, knows what her rights are and knowing, dares maintain them. She is not bold or immodest. Far from it. It is not known that she is given much to flirting. She does look a bit roguish and—well, wicked isn’t just the word but it’s the only one in the language—yes, a little bit wicked at times. Graceful! Of course she is graceful. She rarely humps herself over her handle bars. She doesn’t look well that way and she knows it.

She mostly has a very graceful and easy seat and carries herself a-wheel with the air of one knowing all about it. She rarely gets flustrated. Down Wisconsin street, through the narrow and often crowded funnel of a thoroughfare over the bridge, she sails along up Grand avenue, barely missing the hubs of passing vehicles, but she does miss them and it is not often she dismounts to make the passage.

Out in the parks where the road is freer she can get up a good bit of speed. She likes it, too, and her eyes sparkle with pure delight and her face flushes to rosy color with the healthful exertion. And even little accidents are a rare thing.

Her costume? Well, she is diversified in that respect. Generally it is the short skirt and high boots, with a natty hat. Sometimes she breaks through the conventionalities and wears a costume that no man would dare attempt to describe, but that all men turn and look at. But not often. Her modesty is a safeguard. She never dons anything immodest. But in the matter of costume she is as varied in her moods and choice as an April sky. Watch her from any prominent street corner almost any time of day—as there is little doubt you have already done it there is any poetry in your soul. Here she comes in brown—a soft chocolate brown— hat, skirt, waist, shoes and all. Even her hair and eyes are brown. Pretty? Certainly and as trim and neat and clean cut as—what sort of comparison can one make? None.

Then she rolls by in a gray suit. It is hard to tell which one prefers. She is charming in both. And here she is in a blue. And that seems to be about right also. It’s hard to choose. And this next one. A natty shirt waist and black skirt, and the trim figure goes by with the glint of the wheels in the sunlight and nothing is fairer.

The bicycle girl is not a dozen years old yet, and she is one of the great institutions of the country. How she has forged to the front! Take her off the streets and out of the parks and an element that gives much of the color and life we love to see would be gone. And would it not make a difference in color of her cheek and the brightness of her eye? Has she not found health and a better physical and mental development, as well as pleasures she never dreamed of before she rode the wheel? God bless the bicycle girl."

The Holy Antonius' Last and Greatest Temptation
Danish cartoon from 1899, originally entitled Wheelwoman, which indicates that it came from the US or UK. The caption reads: "The Holy Antonius' Last and Greatest Temptation". :-)

8 comments:

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WESTYLE said...

such an awesome article and very inspiring.
www.westyleblog.blogspot.com
I had to re-post your recent photos, vintage bicycling in Paris. I'm a huge fan of women riding fancy.

Justin said...

The bicycle has played a major role in women's liberation. For your readers in the San Diego area, there is an excellent museum exhibit women and the bicycle: http://www.coronadohistory.org/Galleries/future_exhibit.html

kfg said...

God bless the bicycle girl, indeed.

One of the reasons that a modern bicycle girl can just look in her fucking closet to find suitable clothes to ride in is because women's street clothes were refashioned to be "bicycle specific" more than a century ago.

This, as much as anything, is what liberated them. Focus on the bicycle girl is not sexism. The bicycle girl is the core of the matter. The state of the bicycle girl is what defines a society's bicycle culture.

Perhaps someday more men will realize how much the liberation of women liberated them as well, put away their sporting gear and go for a pleasant, casual ride with their bicycle girl.

ttv said...

wow! too old. how could they keep that newspaper?

Robin said...

Notice how the page also includes an advert for a 'Free Book for Weak Men', because 'Drugs Never Cure'. Seems this bicycle girl had the same problems as today's!

Roadrider said...

From: 1889 - http://www.neworleansbicycleclub.org/archives/bicycle_era_NOLA.pdf.
"Women in New Orleans turned to cycling soon after the invention of the drop-frame safety. "The ladies' safety is commencing to loom up," a correspondent told the editor of Bicycling World in 1889. "Two months ago there wasn't a rider, now there are three.... They are all delighted, too, with their wheels, though that mount does worry 'em considerably." Easily shocked residents blanched as Southern belles embraced what many prudent citizens regarded as an essentially unladylike sport, but a local girl who rode frequently devised a formula to ward off adverse comments: "Sit straight, ride slowly, have the saddle high enough, use short cranks, never, never chew gum, conduct yourself altogether in a ladylike manner and sensible people will not shake their heads in disapproval when you ride." When the bicycle craze gripped the city in the mid-'90's, the Picayune reported that "hundreds of women" could be seen riding daily. Girls from Newcomb College joined the movement, and those who did not own bicycles said they intended to "torment their papas to death until they had one." Teachers rode bicycles to school to save carfare. Ida Barrow, who taught at Girls' High School, declared, "I don't think anything is so beneficial to a woman's health and nerves as a long spin in the open air." Another female cyclist simply stated that women were "better and happier for the wheel."

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