Cycling Sources #8 ‘Women on Wheels’

Why exactly did women take to cycling in the 1890s? Was it just for the pleasures and liberation which accompanied riding a bicycle, or were there other factors which pushed them to take up the pastime? In 1899 a Berlin writer with the most fantastically German name, in Herr Paul Von Schnonthan, looked to explore this question by going round Berlin asking women why they had taken to cycling. The following article, which appeared in an Irish newspaper, offered a commentary on his findings.

Von Schnonthan’s research suggested that pleasure and emancipation were not the main reasons why women took to cycling. Those he interviewed gave a wide range of reason why they cycled- from the demands of fashion to a desire to please their prospective husbands, but few mentioned the enjoyment which cycling brought them.

As such, the writer of the article was somewhat cynical about Von Schnonthan’s findings, querying the fact that, ‘almost all the women interviewed allege that necessity, not pleasure, has set them on wheels.’

Instead, they offered a much simpler why cycling was so popular amongst women. They extolled the ‘new life’ it had given them, which was, ‘wider, freer, and more delightful than was dreamt of before its coming.’

In an article of fantastic images (the ‘match-making mamma’ tortuously accompanying her daughters on their cycling excursions being particularly enjoyable) my favourite is probably the one of ‘a younger and unmarried lady’ carrying a pair of tongs and a spirit lamp on her excursions so to curl her fringe (more on the oft neglected history of fringe fashioning can be found here).

“A married lady alleges she was reluctantly compelled to cycle by the increasing expansion of her waist. ‘My sister-in-law’, she writes, ‘lost six pounds through bicycling, so I thought I would try my luck too. That is the only reason, for I derive no pleasure from it, and am afraid of my bones every time I mount my bike. In the spring I ride twenty kilometres every day. I am a little thinner than I was, but nothing to what I should like to be.’

Fashion is the power which has converted a younger and unmarried lady into a reluctant cyclist. She wails as follows over the sacrifices it entails: – ‘One is obliged to do so whether one likes it or not. As you ask for the truth, I will tell you that I do not think it nice for girls to ride on a bicycle. One perspires so horribly, and after half an hour’s ride one gets into a dreadful state. I always take a little powder-box and a pair of tongs and a spirit lamp to curl my fringe, but it is very difficult to use them when there are gentleman present, for that makes such a fuss, and they might laugh at one. I am always getting bruises too, and hurting myself. I hope the fashion will soon die out.’

One young lady, however, recently engaged, is an honest enthusiast. She has learnt to cycle at the request of her prospective bridegroom, and is determined to ride tandem with him after her marriage. She does not mention which is to take the front seat.

A young woman’s righter is a cyclist because she thinks the greatest movement runs fastest and smoothest on wheels. She contrasts her own condition before and after the emancipation of the bicycle. There are two very different girls that she describes:- ‘The one that walks along the Ringstrasse by mama’s side, clad in a long gown, terribly hampering to the legs, that can scarcely dare to look to the right or the left, and must certainly not look behind; the other, in a smart and coquettish attire, decent and sportsmanlike – a cap and a man’s scarf, and a divided skirt- rides along the street. One feels then, as free as a bird in the air, and a little like a man! And really, the best of all is to be a man! Of course, a good many ride who ought not to do so. They have not the necessary figure. One must be nineteen and have a good figure if one wants to ride a bicycle.

Cycling in ‘smart and coquettish’ attire. Source: http://www.victoriana.com/Fashion/cycling-clothing.html

An appeal is made to our sympathy on behalf of the match-making mamma, whom duty, not pleasure, has planted solidly on the bicycle saddle. ‘Just because I am married and have grown-up daughters, I am obliged to take up cycling. All their girl friends bike, and it is now a part of a girl’s education to do so. I resisted as long as I could, because my husband does not approve of it, and four bicycles make a big hole in one’s annual income; but is was of no use, when we saw that two of my husband’s nieces, who are not anything like so pretty as my three girls, had got engaged whilst bicycling. It was my duty as a mother, though an unpleasant one. Young men nowadays are quite made about bicycling. Formerly they used to come to one’s house; now their bicycling excursions always prevent them from doing so, and one is always hearing that Miss so-and-so is going with them. So I had to let my girls learn to ride too; and as I cannot let them go alone, I have had to learn as well in my old days, though it is torture to me. Do you think I would be such a fool as to ride at my age if I was not positively obliged to do so?’

The good lady can dismount as she pleases. The chief merit of the bicycle in the eyes of the young is that it dispenses of the chaperon. The bicycle is in truth the women’s emancipator. It imparts an open aired freedom and freshness to a life heretofore cribbed, cabined and confined by convention. The cyclists have collided with the unamiable Mrs Grundy, and driven triumphantly over her prostrate body. Delightful excursions, fresh air, and lovely scenery are the boons which the cycle has offered to the girl, and of which the girl has testified her enthusiastic appreciation.

Engaging in ‘Delightful Exursions’. Source: https://www.pinterest.com/aminatyg/cycle-chic/

Yet it cannot be said that cycling makes women ‘fast’ except as pace is measured by the cyclometer. We are not surprised that in matrimonial advertisements in Germany it has come to be regarded as an essential condition. To men the bicycle has been as unquestionable boon. But after all, men had their fair share of fresh air and country pleasures before the advent of the wheel. To women, it has brought a new life, wider, freer, and more delightful than was dreamt of before its coming.”

An example of a marriage advertisement from the 19th Century. Many more equally amusing examples can he found at http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_vault/2014/03/10/vegetarian_personal_ads_19th_c_matrimonial_advertisements.html

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