NUNDA — In the late 19th Century women found their voice, and in doing so found freedom in the simplicity of bicycling.
Dr. Ellen Gruber Garvey did a presentation for the Nunda Historical Society on March 14 entitled “Women on Wheels- How Gilded Age Women Found Freedom Through Bicycling.”
Garvey is a New Jersey City University professor of english where she co-edits the journal Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy. Her doctorate is from the University of Pennsylvania, she recently taught for a semester in Paris, as Visiting Professor at the Université Paris 8/Vincennes-St. Denis, and her recent book, Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance, has won four awards, including the Society of American Archivists’ Waldo Gifford Leland Award and the Institute for Humanities Research Award.
This program is made possible through the support of the Humanities New York’s Public Scholars program.
Garvey said the coolest thing to do in the 1890s was to go bicycling.
“The first bicycle was a toy for rich people,” she said. “It didn’t get used much. The next stage took a lot of strength to move along. It was commonly known as the ‘boneshaker’ since it had wooden wheels, no brakes, and no springs. There was a lot of worry about women riding these bicycles.”
When women and girls first rode bicycles in large numbers in the 1890s, they celebrated their new freedom to move around in the world. Susan B. Anthony said she stood and rejoiced, “every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” Anthony thought bicycling had, “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”
The Eagle Bicycle was the one with a large wheel on front and a little wheel on back. This required the rider to haul themselves onto the seat, and needed balance to stay up.
“This bicycle was mostly used by athletic rich men,” Garvey said. “They had to wear tight pants, so they didn’t get caught up in the wheels.”
The famous female bicyclist Miss Elsa Van Blumer, of Rochester would use these types of bicycles in her acts around the world in 1881.
The original Tricycle was very heavy and expensive. This was socially acceptable for women, since the wheels were on the side, and there was a seat they could sit in to pedal along. It was also used for disabled people to be out and about in the gardens.
The Safety Bicycle looked more like the bikes we are used to seeing now. It had a chain attached to the wheels, brakes, and rubber tires. It cost $100, so this brought in the Middle Class. New York City had events and clubs wrapped around the latest fab.
“These bicycles were cheaper than horses, and easier to care for,” Garvey said. “People in the city preferred the use of bicycles. They celebrated the invention.
The “Daisy Bell” was the first two-person operated bicycle. It was commonly used by couples as the woman sat in front.
Bicycling took on a life of its own in the late 19th Century to early 20th Century. There were board games, playing cards, prestigious clubs, and amazing acts all wrapped around the bicycle. Women formed their own bicycle clubs from 1895 to 1900.
“Some women were learning to ride for the first time in their 40s and 50s,” Garvey said. “Kittie Knox was a famous African American Bicyclist. She won awards for having the best bicyclist costume. She was a League Wheelman from 1893 to 1895. They had changed their laws at this point to include black people.”
Alice Austen was a photographer who specialized in photographing women on bicycles in the city. These photos celebrates women mobility.
Women saw bicycling as having a relationship with the world they never would’ve had otherwise.
“There was a lot of fear women were abandoning their traditional roles to go bicycling,” Garvey said. “This made women more independent. Annie “Londonderry” Cohen Kopchousky was said to have traveled the world on her bicycle. She did a lot of it on her bicycle, but not all of it. She earned money by writing about her experiences. Annie Oakley did an act shooting from her bicycle.”
Many magazines banked on the use of bicycles involving women. Many of the ads were geared towards enticing them.
This may sound like “old news” but it is still an important part of cultures today. It may have died out with the invention of the automobile in 1910, but it is making a comeback. In Iran the women were using bicycling as a way to express freedom in 2016.
Garvey said she would like to see it come back in the local areas, and encourage people to get back into the exercise of bicycling.
“I would like you all to encourage people to continue bicycling, and find places like the nature trails to be one with nature,” she said. “You can still have a special relationship with the world on a bicycle.”