Woman on Wheels

Women on Wheels

Woman Exercising Our Two-Wheeled Independence is not new and Southside Wheely Wheelers promote and encourage our Cycling Sisters on Wheels.  Woman on Wheels is most important to South Side Wheely Wheelers and you can be part of our cycling team of Cycling Sisters. Contact our club NOW and start enjoying cycling with Woman on Wheels.

Women on Wheels: The Bicycle and the Women’s Movement of the 1890s

The 1890s was the peak of the American bicycle craze and consumers were buying bicycles in large numbers. In 1897 alone, more than two million bicycles were sold in the United States , about one for every 30 inhabitants. Bicycles, or “wheels,” were everywhere in the gay 90s as were “wheelmen’s clubs,” well organized association with newsletters, receptions, weekly outings, uniforms and special meeting rooms. Bicycle paths were clogged with traffic on weekends and newspapers were filled with cycling news and special columns for “wheelmen.” Hundreds of manufacturers were successfully profiting from booming sales and a quality bicycle could be had for under $100. Some 3,000 American businesses were involved, in one way or another, in the bicycle trade, including a bicycle shop in Dayton , Ohio owned by two brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, who were using bicycle technology to tinker with another invention they were working on.

So popular was cycling that by 1896, even Madison Square Garden proved too small to accommodate all those who wanted to display their wares at “The Great Bicycle Exhibition.” 1 Balconies and three tiers of terraces for promenading above the Garden floor were constructed to expand the exhibition space. When the Garden’s electric lights were turned on, the effect, wrote one reporter, “was brilliant.” People in masquerade, human freaks, and other means were employed to attract visitors to the displays. “A Chinaman presides on the platform of a wheel known by its yellow frame. An Indian with his war paint on; a swell; a giant negro; a dime museum midget; a quartet of jubilee singers; a fat boy; young men in racing costume; allegorical figures that suggest the names of standard wheels; [and] a rambling tramp” contributed to the circus-like atmosphere that drew huge crowds to the Garden.

Cycling in the 1890s was nothing less than “a general intoxication, an eruption of exuberance like a seismic tremor that shook the economic and social foundations of society and rattled the windows of its moral outlook.”  Nowhere was this more evident than in the role of the bicycle in the changing lives of American women. Indeed, the woman’s movement of the 1890s and the cycling craze became so inextricably intertwined that in 1896 Susan B. Anthony told the New YorkWorld’s Nellie Bly that bicycling had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”

It wasn’t always easy for women to ride bicycles and it was the evolution of bicycle technology that opened the sport to women and paved the way for women to seize the bicycle as a tool of personal and political power. Before the development of chain technology, which allowed a cyclist to transfer pedal power to a bicycle’s rear wheel, bicycle designers increased bicycle speed by increasing the size of the front wheel to which the pedals were attached.  The typical Ordinary, as these high-wheelers were known, had front wheels as large as five feet in diameter so the machine would cover more ground with each pedal revolution. It required extraordinary athleticism just to mount an Ordinary, let alone ride one, and accidents were common. Steering was difficult and even a small obstacle, a rut in the road or a large stone, could send the Ordinary rider, mounted many feet above the ground, head first over the front handlebars. Indeed, learning how to “take a header” safely was an essential skill.

In the late 1870s, the first so-called “Safety” bicycles appeared. Safety bicycles had wheels of equal size and a chain drive (though a few models had a chainless “shaft drive”) that transferred power from the pedals to the rear wheel. At first derided by experienced wheelmen as designed for old men and women, the Safety quickly proved the superior design, both faster and more stable than the Ordinary, and remains the basis for bicycle design today.

The Safety, not the Ordinary was, ironically, a bicycle ordinary people, including women, could ride. The Ordinary quickly became obsolete and the Safety bicycle helped usher in the cycling craze of the 1890s. “The safety bicycle fills a much-needed want for women in any station of life,” said The Bearings, a cycling periodical, in October, 1894, “It knows no class distinction, is within reach of all, and rich and poor alike have the opportunity of enjoying this popular and healthful exercise.”

As cycling’s popularity exploded, a new breed of woman was making her mark in the 1890s. “The New Woman” was the term used to describe the modern woman who broke with convention by working outside the home, or eschewed the traditional role of wife and mother, or became politically active in the woman’s suffrage movement or other social issues. The New Woman saw herself as the equal of men and the bicycle helped her assert herself as such.

Woman on Wheels is most important to South Side Wheely Wheelers and you can be part of our cycling team of Cycling Sisters. Contact our club NOW and start enjoying cycling with Woman on Wheels.

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