The late Victorian era saw the rise of the bicycle. They were easy to use, relatively cheap, encouraged physical exercise, and allowed women to do crazy things like get out of the house and go farther afield without necessarily being escorted by men. The early history of the bicycle is entwined with the history of modern feminism, encouraging health, autonomy, and a simplification of cumbersome clothing. As Susan B. Anthony famously said in 1896:
“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.”
Of course, with social change, comes people made uncomfortable by that social change. Etiquette manuals had a lot to say about bicycles and how to use them in a refined, well-bred way. Some advice was practical, other recommendations were outright bizarre, and many often translated into limiting a woman’s ability to use the bicycle to its full potential.
A classy Victorian lady and her bicycle. Mabel Williams with bicycle at 54 Main Street, residence of James Ballantyne, July 1898. Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.
The first thing a cyclist should understand is how to talk about what they’re doing. According to Maud Cooke (“The Well-Known and Popular Author”, as she is described on her title page), in her book Social Etiquette (1896):
“It is distinctly understood in the first place that ‘cycling’ is the correct word; the up-to-date woman dares not speak of bicycling nor of wheeling.”(343)
Chaperones for lady cyclists are important, Cooke says. If you don’t have a chaperone who can ride a bicycle, train one up yourself!
“Neither must a married woman ride alone; failing a male escort, she is followed by a groom or a maid. A woman is very fortunate if among her men or women servants, one knows how to ride a bicycle. Ladies occasionally go to the expense of having a servant trained in the art.”(344)
Cooke also tells her readers to make good use of male relations:
“If one possesses such a commodity as a brother or a husband, he can always be made useful on a cycling excursion. Never is a man better able to show for what purpose he was made than upon such occasions. . . . he must always be on the alert to assist his fair companion in every way in his power – he must be clever enough to repair any slight damage to her machine which may occur en route, he must assist her in mounting and dismounting, pick her up if she has a tumble, and make himself generally useful and incidentally ornamental and agreeable.
He rides at her left in order to give her the more guarded place, as the rule of the road in meeting other cyclers is the same as that for a carriage, to turn to the right. In England, the reverse is the case.”(344)
Look at these gentlemen cyclers, not helping out their lady friends! Norman and Adam Ballantye with bicycles at 54 Main Street. James and Lilly Ballantyne are at left of photo. Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.
And don’t you dare ring your bell too much.
“Society. . . frowns upon constant ringing of the bell – that will do for the vulgar herd who delight in the noise.”(345)
Cooke’s strangest piece of advice to me is this whole discussion of having women cyclists dragged along behind male cyclists on rubber towropes:
“Very gallant escorts use a towrope when accompanying a lady on a wheeling spin. These are managed in various ways; one consists of an India-rubber door-spring just strong enough to stretch a little with the strain, and about six feet of shade cord. One end is attached to the lady’s wheel at the lamp bracket or brake rod by a spring swivel, and the other end is hooked to the escort’s handle bar in such a way that he can set it free in a moment, if necessary. When he has finished towing he drops back to the lady’s side, hanging the loose end of the cord over her shoulder, to be ready for the next hill. A gentle pull that is a bagatelle to a strong rider is of great assistance to a week one up hill or against a strong wind.”(345-6)
Wait, I tell a lie. Here’s Cooke’s advice for scaring off stray dogs that like to chase you when you ride your bicycle past them:
“For Protection Against Dogs. Every bicyclist in the land will rise up and call the inventor of the ammonia gun for dogs blessed. Nothing is more annoying to the rider than to have a mongrel dog barking at his pedals and scurrying across his pathway in such close proximity to the front wheel as to be a constant reminder of a possible ‘header.’ The gun is calculated to make an annoying dog sneeze and sniff away all future ambitions to investigate the pace of a rider. It is said to be a perfect instrument in every way. The advantages enumerated for it are: Positively will not leak; has no springs to press or caps to remove, and will shoot for five to twelve times from fifteen to thirty feet with one loading.”(346)
Well, I am glad that these guns can be used up to five to twelve times! I am also intrigued by this little bit of cycling slang: apparently tumbling head over heels is called a “header.”
Finally, here is Cooke’s long list of “Don’ts for Cyclers”:
In summary: sit up straight, don’t look ridiculous, still come to church, don’t get in anybody’s way, don’t trust directions from working class folks, dress modestly, and follow the law.
I do note that vintage lady cyclists were charmingly called “bloomers”! If we don’t want to bring back ammonia guns to scare off dogs or rubber towropes to go up hills, we can still bring the classy Victorian cycling looks back into style.
This post is dedicated to Renée and Lauren, who recognized me at the Flying Canoe Festival in Edmonton last month and made me feel momentarily internet famous.