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Living History: In 1890s, Utah women find freedom on bicycles

Published March 15, 2013 3:29 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

During a recent pollution-free morning in Utah, I took out my bike, pumped air into the tires, grabbed my helmet and cruised the neighborhood feeling free as a bird.

Somehow — blame it on fresh air — I got to thinking about the evolution of cycling. From the wooden "boneshaker" and the high-mount "ordinary" to the modern "safety" bicycle, wheels have not only impacted our roads, they've steered our social mores.

In 1877, Columbia Manufacturing Co. produced one of the first American-made bicycles at the Weeds Sewing Machine Company in Hartford, Conn. (High-mounts sold for $125; sewing machines, $13.)

By the 1890s the Golden Age of cycling was in full bloom. Nationwide sales surpassed 2 million. Cyclists formed the League of American Wheelmen (and later lobbied for better roads). Newspapers regularly printed "Wheel Notes." Sports pages regaled readers with tales of wheel races, cycling rivalries, long-distance excursions, adventures and woes.

In Utah, agile wheelmen caught the fever fast, and enterprising merchants seized the moment. Browning Bros., Salt Lake Hardware Co., Western Hardware Co. and Continental Market sold the latest in safety bicycles.

Bicycle manufacturers, such as Meredith Brothers (the 1888 forerunner of Guthrie Bicycle Co.), went into full production. Bicycle riding schools offered lessons. In 1896, 2,500 bicyclists took to the road ­— many of them on the safety.

The safety, which featured smaller, equally sized wheels and rear-wheel drive, was a less expensive and popular alternative to the perilous ordinary, with its 52-inch-diameter front wheel. Although the 60-inch high-mount guaranteed great distance covered with each pedaled revolution, remaining perched on it was tricky. "Taking a header" (being thrown over the front wheel) was both common and painful.

The innovative safety bicycle, with its lower-to-the-ground frame, offered competitive speed and engendered no class distinction. Phasing out the high-mount, the safety offered equity to the masses, opportunity for the modern woman and, during the 1890-1920 Progressive Era, was a shoo-in for the suffragist movement.

"Let me tell you what I think of bicycling," abolitionist and suffragist leader Susan B. Anthony said in 1896. "I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel … the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood."

According to Sue Macy's Wheels of Change, suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 80, supported increased mobility and road improvements. In an article for the American Wheelmen, she wrote, "The bicycle will inspire women with more courage, self-respect and self-reliance and make the next generation more vigorous of mind and body; for feeble mothers do not produce great statesmen, scientists and scholars."

Early sightings of female cyclists provoked public accusations, ranging from issues of immorality, poor health and bad hair to loss of femininity.

The Salt Lake Tribune (Aug. 23, 1896) reprinted a Chicago Chronicle article adamant in its assessment that "A woman beginner is the terror of the road. She plunges and [wobbles] from curb to curb with a charming indifference to wheelmen and pedestrians alike, and cautious riders invariably turn down side roads at her approach."

If a wheelwoman became proficient and was "as fully able to take care of herself as any of the sterner sex," her sensibilities came into question. "The trouble seems to be that she won't do it," the article informed. "She will ride upon the wrong side of the road. She will cut between two riders going the same direction, and she will dispute the right of way with anything from a baby carriage to a locomotive."

Dress reform sparked rabid debates on feminine morality, unhygienic saddles and sexual arousal. Especially when the restrictive clothing of the 1890s – whalebone corsets, voluminous petticoats, cumbersome dresses, tight waistbands and collars, and long sleeves — gave way to practicality: pedal pushers née bloomers.

What was the modern woman to do? Pedal.

Eileen Hallet Stone, an oral historian, maybe reached at ehswriter@aol.com. Additional sources: Ted Moore's Fast Revolutions in the Utah Historical Quarterly, 2011