Victorian Etiquette Corner: How To Ride Your Bicycle Like a Lady

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.

LAC Mabel Williams with bicycle at 54 Main Street, residence of James Ballantyne July 1898
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)

Norman and Adam Ballantye with bicycles at 54 Main Street. James and Lilly Ballantyne are at left of photo. April 1897 LAC
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.

Resources

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.

Edwardian Etiquette Corner #1: The Worst Breach of Etiquette

The word “etiquette”, when used in the twenty-first century, seems almost invariably to have a pretentious connotation. They’re those rules that we’re almost inevitably messing up that nobody cares about anymore except when they embarrass us. “Remnants” of “sexist” etiquette, such as the idea that men should hold open doors for women, still cause anxiety today, with some men not wanting to appear rude by allowing the door to slide closed in a woman’s face but also not wanting to seem sexist by holding it open.

However, etiquette, at its root, was never meant to embarrass anyone. The idea was that if everybody followed the same set of rules, then one could go through life knowing precisely what to expect of themselves and others. Awkwardness would be reduced because everyone knew their role in a given social situation. Caveat: this did, of course, enable entrenched gendered, racial, and classed systems by making certain actions as “natural.” That being said, the general idea behind etiquette was to facilitate interactions with various members of society.

Where does one learn these rules? Generally by being brought up “correctly”: being “well-bred” and well-educated as a child. Essentials of etiquette include not drawing attention to the body (which is why, say, cleaning one’s teeth at the dinner table with a toothpick or picking one’s nose have generally been faux-pas for ages), knowing how to address others properly, and being calm and courteous in almost any situation.

Immortalized mid-sneeze. Bodily functions were one aspect of life that people of “good breeding” would always ignore. It was because they would avoid drawing attention to bodily functions that actions such as blowing one’s nose loudly, picking one’s teeth at the table, or farting are considered rude even today. Source: Tumblr.

Written etiquette guides, of course, spoke to the anxieties surrounding these usually unwritten rules. The bulk of these books addressed unusual circumstances like introductions and marriages, particularly in situations where one might have to address strangers. One etiquette book from 1896 actually spends over twenty pages on bicycle etiquette: how long a lady could go out cycling, whether or not it was appropriate for her to cycle unescorted, etc. The amount of ink spilled in this chapter is testament to the anxiety the writer felt about this new situation and how society should react to it.

Quick: what’s the worst possible breach of etiquette, according to Edwardian etiquette manuals? It may surprise you. Getting little details incorrect- e.g., whether or not to hold aloft the cliché pinky while sipping a teacup – may mark you out as ill-bred, but the occasional error will not put you in disgrace. No, the worst breach of etiquette is pointing out someone else’s breach of etiquette. So those folks who like to nit-pick other people’s behaviour and correct them in front of others to feel superior? They are in fact worse offenders than those they mock.

(Aside from parents or governesses teaching children etiquette, the only exceptions to this rule seems to be the authors of etiquette manuals, but they always have arrogant overtones to their writing.)

One etiquette manual asked its readers to consider how one should react in a test situation. Say you are hosting a dinner, and you, the hostess, look over and notice that one of your guests is eating his soup with the wrong utensil: a fork. The worst possible outcome of this situation would be for you to chastise this guest in front of everyone, marking yourself out as ill-bred and embarrassing your guest. Alternatively, it would be almost as bad for that guest to look over at you, the hostess, and see that he was eating with a different utensil and for him to feel embarrassed. So what does this etiquette manual recommend you do? Pick up your fork and eat your soup with it like that guest. (Besides, this situation would not have arisen if everyone knew the correct rules; if the problem was that the guest was not brought up well enough to know the correct utensils when he saw them, he should not have been invited, and if the problem was that his table setting lacked the required utensil, that was your fault as a hostess, not your guests’.)

We in 2014 do not live in an etiquette-less society. Some of our etiquette may in flux, certainly, but one of the reasons that people get annoyed is because many of us do not follow the same set of assumed rules. Take, for example, using one’s phone in a lecture hall. Texting, most of us have been taught, is incredibly rude to do when someone is speaking, doubly so if you are, say, a student in a lecture meant to be receiving information from someone with greater knowledge/power than you. However, in recent years, live-tweeting a conference talk has become more and more common; in that case, the audience member glued to their smart phone is in fact being more attentive to what the speaker is saying, not less. Nevertheless, one still can’t, at a glance, see if the person sitting in the front row staring at their phone (and not the speaker) is texting someone about how drunk they were last night or if they are in fact spreading the speaker’s message to attentive followers who couldn’t make it to the lecture.

Historical etiquette books are fascinating because just as often as they enumerate points of etiquette that seem quaint and old-fashioned (one devoted several pages to the merits of using forks or spoons to eat ice cream), much of their advice is still immediately applicable today. Watch this space for further blog entries on forgotten but still useful pieces of historical etiquette.

A group of women walk up the steps of the Rue de Rivoli, Paris, on June 3rd 1906. Notice the way that they have gathered a handful of  their skirts from behind and pulled it forward, freeing the legs to walk up the steps without flashing knees by taking fistfuls of it from the front and raising it up. Source: Edwardian Street Style.

Further Reading 

“One of the gre…

“One of the great plagues of travel is the preposterous quantity of luggage which women, as a rule, insist upon taking with them. They pack up for the trip everything that they think is likely to prove useful; and as they will never admit that they possess one useless thing in their wardrobe, the only articles left behind are those which ultimately are either sold to the dealer or sent as Christmas presents to poor relations. Now, it is not at all necessary to take with you your whole wardrobe to persuade people that you are a respectable person. People on the Continent who travel much care little about who or what you are, so long as you are not dressed in an outrageously vulgar style. If you appear plainly attired, so that no one thinks of observing your costume, you will be thought a sensible girl or woman, who, if she has never been abroad before, has something of a traveller’s instinct. If, on the contrary, you are perpetually changing your dress, appearing in new colours every day, and endeavouring to attract attention, you will be regarded as a vulgar woman, who has seen nothing of the world, whom it is desirable to avoid, or as the walking advertisement of some second-rate London dressmaker.”

  • Complete Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen: A Guide to the Rules and Observances of Good Society. London: Ward, Lock & Co. Ltd, 1900. Chapter XVII: Foreign Travel, pg. 87-8.

I am constantly fascinated by historical etiquette, particularly etiquette books. Some of them, like the one above, can drift into snarky territory, but they can really reveal much about the “ideals” of “polite society”/”good breeding” as much as they tell us, through their anxieties and condemnations, about class tensions, social interactions, and the everyday annoyances of life.

I am currently reading through multiple etiquette books from about 1896-1915 in search of etiquette for travellers, as I am thinking of framing a term paper on tourism, society and trans-Atlantic crossings in etiquette advice.

Some of the advice they give is still incredibly practical. I will have to post excerpts from Maud C. Cooke’s Social Etiquette Or Manners and Customs of Polite Society (1896). Her advice on fashion, particularly what is flattering with different hair colours, complexions and body types, is still incredibly relevant. Her advice on bicycle etiquette (which she seems to be quite anxious about and spends quite a bit of time discussing) also deserves its own blog post. Or personalized Twitter feed.