safety bike

Bicycle, Safety, 1898-1905, iron, metal, wood, rubber, L: 72 x H: 44.5 x D: 30 in. The Farmers’ Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of the Rochester Historical Society, F0939.1946.

Anyone who has seen an old-fashioned bicycle, with one giant wheel and one tiny one, and wondered how anyone could balance on it, can see why bike riders in the late nineteenth century preferred the newly-developed safety bicycle, with its equally-sized wheels. This change in bicycle design had far-reaching consequences for gender roles and political activism. Before the safety bicycle, cycling was a masculine activity; the design of older bicycles made it difficult for women to ride due to their long skirts. Women were also expected to spend their time in the home, not in public. Once the safety bicycle was invented, women in skirts could balance on a bicycle easily.[1] Women began to ride in droves in the 1890s, many reveling in their new-found freedom. Women were able to travel farther on their own and broaden their horizons.

 

However, this did not mean that bicycling was not still a gendered activity, as this particular model from The Farmer’s Museum’s collection reveals. Although men’s and women’s safety bicycles had similar designs, there was a clear difference between them. This safety bike was made by Radio Sporting Goods in Rochester, NY, between 1898 and 1905, at the height of the bicycle’s popularity. It was most likely owned by a man because it has a diamond frame. Most bikes for women lacked a bar at the top, as this one does. A bicycle with a “step-through” frame allowed women in skirts to ride more easily.[2]

 

ladies_safety_bicycles1889

A Ladies Safety Bicycle (Photo Courtesy Wikipedia Commons)

Although it would have been difficult to ride this safety bicycle in a skirt, it was possible for a women wearing bloomers to ride it. Some bicycle manufacturers marketed bicycles with diamond frames to women who wore bloomers.[3] Because of the bicycle craze in the 1890s, bloomers became popular among women.[4] Some men worried that women who wanted to wear pants would want other prerogatives that had traditionally been reserved for men.[5] Even those women who rode bicycles in skirts were seen as “new women,” who rejected traditional gender roles. Riding a bicycle gave women more control over their own lives. Cycling was also a political statement, particularly if a woman was riding a bicycle with a diamond frame.

 

Those who supported and opposed women’s suffrage linked safety bicycles to women’s participation in the public sphere.[6] Because they enabled women to travel more freely and on their own, suffragettes wrote that bicycles led to female empowerment. The popular book, Bicycling for Ladies, by M.E. Ward, stated that “riding the wheel, our own powers are revealed to us… you are continually being called upon to judge and to determine points that before have not needed your consideration, and consequently you become more alert, active, quick-sighted and keenly alive as well to the rights of others as to what is due yourself.”[7] The increased independence that bicycles afforded to women made it possible for them to leave the private sphere and demand increased rights and opportunities in the public sphere.

By Emma Glaser

[1] Ellen Gruber Garvey, “Reframing the Bicycle: Advertising-Supported Magazines and Scorching Women,” American Quarterly 47, no. 1 (March 1996): 67-69.

[2] Steven E. Alford and Suzanne Ferriss, An Alternative History of Bicycles and Motorcycles: Two-Wheeled Transportation and Material Culture (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 51-52.

[3] Garvey, “Reframing the Bicycle,” 69.

[4] Antonia Petrash, More than Petticoats: Remarkable New York Women (Guilford: TwoDot, 2001), 60.

[5] Patricia Marks, Bicycles, Bangs, and Bloomers: The New Woman in the Popular Press (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990), 191, 193.

[6] Erin Russell, “That’s No Ordinary Bicycle!: A Safety Bicycle and Women’s Suffrage” (Cooperstown Graduate Program, SUNY Oneonta, 2017), 6.

[7] M.E. Ward, Bicycling for Ladies (New York: Brentano’s, 1896), 12-13.

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