La Classe et L’Égalité:
Early Female Cyclists and an Overview of the Columbia Lady's Pneumatic Safety Bicycle
by Laura Moran
The 1890s saw the largest bicycle boom in cycling history. Certainly, the first wheelmen began riding in the late 1860s at the height of high wheel popularity. The popularity of high wheels can be attributed to the lack of other two-wheeled options, and it is important to note that the first wheelmen were specifically men. The gender disparity in cycling began to shift with the emergence of safety bicycles in the mid-1870s. A safety is a bicycle with equal sized wheels and a chain drive, and it was first designed to suit elderly and female riders. The safety is considered the cause of the bicycle boom as it was truly approachable to all sorts of riders. Eventually even the young and male high wheel riders realized the design of the safety was superior, and soon all riders were closer to the ground.
Due to cultural norms of the late 19th century, high wheel riding was not realistically available to women. Regardless of the sometimes dangerous and macho (though thrilling) act of riding a high wheel, the everyday costume severely limited female mobility. And the women from upper class families whose pockets could most easily afford high wheels were those who were expected to adhere most strictly to social code. The aristocratic dress during the 1870s-1890s included a stiff bustle and corset, petticoats, knee-length drawers, and multi-folded skirts called an “Aesthetic Dress” which gave a lady’s hips and rear volume. All of those garments would be worn at one time - any athletics would be daunting with all those layers. With the advent of the safety and its female-friendly design, as can be seen on this c.1897 Columbia Lady’s Pneumatic Safety Bicycle, women were finally able to ride alongside men simply because they were able to get their dresses around the vehicle.
This particular women’s safety (on long-term loan to the Cycling Museum of Minnesota) is crafted specifically with a high-class lady rider in mind. It’s top bar swoops down and is attached to the seat tube near the bottom bracket, rather than traveling nearly straight across towards the seat tube. This makes negative space for the dress or skirt to fill. The chain guard and fenders kept grease, dust, and mud off of the fabric. Luckily, by the time of this particular bike’s manufacture, a loosened dress code for female bikers was already in place (eventually, female riders used knickerbockers similar to men’s garments for their rides).
This coincides and relates to another boom of the 1890s: that of the New Woman. The New Woman was a termed used, sometimes not so endearingly, to describe the modern woman whose independence suddenly extended outside the boundaries of housekeeping and motherhood and into the social and political sphere dominated by men. It was the era of the suffragette, and it was no coincidence that many New Women traveled by bicycle. In fact, the bicycle was a powerful tool: it allowed women to travel about without the accompaniment of a man, and quickly. Even Susan B. Anthony proclaimed that cycling had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”
And if that emancipated woman was traveling about on this specific women’s safety, she traveled in style and in comfort. This beautiful burgundy model is outfitted with a precise and lovely design. Its wooden wheels pair beautifully with its functional and trendy wooden fender and handlebars. The handlebars arc gracefully for an easy grip, and their grips match the frame. These wooden parts needed a precise sort of carpentry, so as to ensure not only the ease but also the possibility of a ride on this machine. The fender is attached to the frame via very taut and tightly wound hemp. Renowned for its stiffness and strength, hemp was trusted in this setting to keep the lady’s fender in place. This Columbia model also boasted a gorgeous chain guard, coated in an aluminum filigree which during the 1890s was a precious investment. The rider of this bicycle was lucky enough to have a revolutionary and fairly unique pneumatic saddle. Affixed with Schrader valves (the tubes required the same), one merely had to pump air into the seat until its user cried “comfortable.” Another fun component of this Women’s Safety is the carbide lantern. Useful for dark rides, this unique mode for light was also potentially dangerous. The lantern had a chamber that was filled with carbide powder and a canteen within the lantern held water. By turning a valve, water would drip into the carbide powder chamber and created acetylene gas. This required a careful hand, as acetylene gas is highly flammable and the light had to be lit using a match. It was nothing that a New Woman could not manage.
Having new riding pants and fellow like-minded suffragettes did not mean life was not always easy or kind to the early female rider. Boston’s The Sunday Herald once described female cyclists as “vicious things.” Women riders of were constantly warned about the dangerous effects of too much biking on the internal organs, the sex organs, and the head, and were encouraged to cease their riding (remarkably, it seemed that male riders were less at risk to these ailments). However, the warnings were all for naught. The New Woman already knew and enjoyed the independence of cycling. In 1894, Annie “Londonderry” Kopchovsky, a Boston-based Jewish immigrant and mother of three, set off on a bicycle tour around the world after two men made a bet of $10,000 that no woman could circumnavigate the globe while earning $5,000 worth of donations in15 months. Annie Londonderry completed the task with 14 days to spare.
The maltreatment of lady cyclists was especially true for female cyclists of color. During the bicycle boom, a time when segregation was rampant and Jim Crow laws were still in effect, cycling clubs were an incredibly popular and social activity. While some all-black cycling clubs formed during this era, many cyclists of color began to consider joining the only national club: League of American Wheelmen. A mixed-race female cyclist, Kittie Knox, joined the League in 1893. At the time, there were a few hundred female members and “twenty to several hundred” members of color in the League’s membership. In 1894, the League’s governing body passed a color bar. Knox was already a prominent member of the Riverside Cycling Club, the first all-black cycling group in Boston and a well-known cyclist who raced on 100-mile courses. During the League’s 1895 annual meeting - this time held in Boston - Knox became a sensation. Not only had she attended the meeting, but she arrived wearing knickerbockers of her own design and won a Fourth of July costume contest in her outfit. Kittie Knox again pushed racial boundaries by showing up to the League’s annual Meet later that day. Southern papers reported that even upon showing her membership card, Knox was denied entry. However, The Boston Globe reported that Knox did enter the meet, and that “the leaders tried to lose Knox during the eighteen mile run but she was game, and when the big crowd entered the town on the return trip she was up with the leaders, sailing with the best of them.” Though a few Bostonian League officials threatened to protest her remaining membership, the League later denied her exile. They explained that the color bar would not be retroactive. As Knox joined the League prior to 1894, she would remain a member. Kittie Knox single-handedly brought attention to the color bar that the League of American Wheelmen instituted and became a source of inspiration for other female cyclists of the time, whether they were serious or social riders.
Amidst challenging social norms, female cyclists broke the mold and took ownership of the sport. Cycling classes specifically for women began appearing and more shapes and styles of cycling knickerbockers were available. In 1896, Maria Ward published Bicycling for Ladies, a definitive text for women cyclists and covered every topic from purchasing to repairing bicycles - without the aid of a man. The bicycle became a tool and a symbol of social change for many women in the western world. And atop such rides as the above Columbia Lady’s Pneumatic Safety Bicycle, a woman would be able to boast la classe and l’égalité.
Questions? Comments? Tales of your own female emancipation atop two wheels? Please share below.
Works Cited for “La Classe and L’Égalité: Early Female Cyclists and an Overview of the Columbia Lady's Pneumatic Safety Bicycle”
•David Mozer. “Bicycle History “Chronology of the Growth of Bicycling and the Development of Bicycle Technology.” International Bicycle Fund at ibike.org. (2004)
•Kate Davies. “Aesthetic Dress.” Fabrickated (February 2015)
•Sarah Gordon. Beauty and Business: Commerce, Gender, and Culture in Modern America. (2001) via annielondonderry.com
•Peter Zheutlin. “Women on Wheels: The Bicycle and the Women’s Movement of the 1890s.” annielondonderry.com (2006)
•“Champion of Her Sex.” New York Sunday World. (February 1896) via annielondonderry.com
•Caroline Wood interviewing Juston Anderson, 2016.
•Adrienne LaFrance. “How the Bicycle Paved the Way for Women’s Rights.” The Atlantic (June 2014)
•Zheutlin, Peter. “Chasing Annie: The Woman Who Changed My Life Was Brave, Cunning, Daring And Free -- And I Never Met Her.” Bicycling (May 2005)
•Andrew Ritchie. “The League of American Wheelmen, Major Taylor and the ‘color question’ in the United States in the 1890s.” Culture, Sport, Society. (June 2003)
•Guy Still. “Guy on a Bike: African-American Bicycling Pioneers.” WCCO CBS Minnesota (February 2017)
•Dan Adams, 2013. “Pluck on Wheels.” Boston Globe (September 2013)
•Carolyn Szcezepanski. “Women’s (Bike) History: Kittie Knox.” News from the League. (March 2013)
•Hilary Angus. “Three Women who Changed the Course of History on Bicycles.” Momentum Magazine (March 2015, updated since)
Laura Moran is a member of the Cycling Museum of Minnesota’s Board of Directors, and she serves on the Collections and Exhibits Committee.