Rummaging through the always-interesting (and sometimes shockingly relevant) news of the 1890s, I recently ran across a Sunday extra in the Indianapolis Journal. On April 28, 1895, an eight-page supplement — the “Bicycle Edition” — was devoted entirely to the cycling craze that engulfed the Hoosier State and the rest of the country.
Later this spring, we’ll be uploading the “Bicycle Edition” to Hoosier State Chronicles. Meanwhile, here’s a sneak peek at the early days of folks on spokes.
Bicycles’ huge role in the women’s rights movement was common news a hundred years ago and, in the 1890s, stirred up a ton of buzz in American newspapers. While our great-grandmothers would not have needed much reminding about how important mobility on wheels had been to achieving equal rights with men, the turn-of-the-century female cycling phenomenon was later mostly forgotten. (A great book published by National Geographic in 2011 has helped bring it back into the light: check out Sue Macy’s Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom.)
Every generation has its great social debates, and Indiana was no stranger to hot discussions about women on wheels.
Hostility toward the newfangled bicycle took on many forms: from horse salesmen and carriage drivers who thought it hurt their business, to ministers who complained about cyclists skipping church on Sunday to go out on country rides and break the Sabbath. But at the center of the debate was women’s dress and embattled notions about female “purity.”
The ample dresses worn by nineteenth-century women made riding around on spokes outright dangerous — as even a sympathetic male, Lieutenant Defrees of the Indiana National Guard, admitted to the Indianapolis Journal in 1895. As a safety issue, Defrees supported women’s preference for “bloomers,” or “athletic knickerbockers” as they were also called.
A sort of divided skirt that resembled both baggy pants and a dress, bloomers were first adopted in England in the 1850’s, when women rejected Parisian fashions in favor of styles from the Middle East, especially Turkey, where females actually had many surprising freedoms not enjoyed in Europe and America at the time. (In the U.S., the practical new clothing item was nicknamed bloomers after Amelia Bloomer, a suffragette from Iowa who fought the prejudice against revealing female attire.)
Lieutenant Defrees, too, opposed the endless ridicule directed at this eminently rational item of clothing. (In fact, some women called them “rationals.”) He put it this way:
(A Victorian cartoonist satirized “The Awful Effects of Velocipeding” in the New Comic Times, a British magazine from the mid-1800s. Men feared that in addition to going down the slippery slope of cycling, women would adopt another “vice” from Asia: smoking cheroots.)
Dr. Henry J. Garrigues, a specialist on women’s health, was another early male who advocated the benefits of bloomers for female riders. Dr. Garrigues authored a fascinating defense — “Woman and the Bicycle” — originally published in The Forum, one of the great “social issue” magazines of the day. An excerpt from Garrigues’ piece appeared in the Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail on January 25, 1896.
Touting the many health benefits of cycling, Garrigues writes: “Bicycle-riding has changed the habits of hundreds of thousands who formerly took little or no exercise in the open air. It has widened the mental horizon for many by inducing them to undertake long rides far away from their homes.”
About bloomers specifically, Garrigues was pretty frank:
The usual long skirt is objectionable in every respect. It impedes the free movement of the legs, pumps air up against the abdomen, and is in great danger of being caught by projecting parts of their own machines or those of other riders, as well as by other obstructions found on the road. To avoid these inconveniences many women have shortened their skirts, and some have done away with them altogether, wearing so-called ” bloomers,” a wide, bifurcated garment extending from the waist to the knee. This garment, combined with a waist and leggings, forms a neat, practical dress for a woman rider. True, it is at present ridiculed and even condemned by some as immodest. However, before men say anything against the decency of bloomers, they had better reform their own trousers, which are not much more decent than becoming. . .
From a medical standpoint bicycling is valuable both as a prophylactic and as a curative agent. Like other outdoor exercises it takes its votaries away from the vitiated air of closed rooms; but it has several advantages peculiarly its own. It is less expensive and safer than horseback-riding. For the female sex it is also healthier, since horseback-riding, if indulged in too much or at too early an age, is apt to produce a funnel-shaped pelvis, which abnormality may prove a serious obstacle to childbirth.
And for an age that seemed leery of even mentioning women’s bodies in so many ways, it’s interesting that Garrigues went into a long, detailed description of what he believed was another benefit of cycling. The New York doctor claimed that the womb, “being of muscular construction, is, like all other muscles, strengthened by bicycling.” He also touted the benefits for men and women suffering from an array of ills, including asthma, neuralgia, headache, insomnia, and “diseases of the intestinal canal — such as dyspepsia, constipation, and haemorrhoids.”
(A couple rides an early tandem bike outside the White House, circa 1890.)
(Wearing bloomers, she was a daredevil in more ways than one.)
(New Ulm Review, New Ulm, Minnesota, July 8, 1896.)
Though opposition to bloomers (and wheeling in general) often dragged religion into the fray, liberal-minded Christians spoke out against more conservative ones, just as they do today. But whatever animosity was directed toward pants from the pulpit, preachers could hardly match the sheer weirdness of Chicago’s “Jack the Whipper,” whom the Terre Haute paper thought to be a truly distinguished “crank of the first water.”
But less than a year later, in 1895, bloomers were still new enough to Terre Haute to cause many men there to stretch their necks in wonder and possibly even in admiration, as the Saturday Evening Mail noted:
Bloomers have not come into such general use in this city as to be common, and the sight of a pair of them in broad daylight very frequently causes a great deal of what the small boy calls “rubber necking.” The other day a young lady was coming up Seventh street on a wheel, and she made quite an attractive figure in her bloomers. A man walking along the street, going in the opposite direction, evidently had never seen bloomers before, and he stretched his neck in the effort to follow her with his eyes. He was so much interested that he paid no attention to where he was going, and presently he ran into a tree on the sidewalk with such force as to peel all the skin off one side of his face.
On the topic of rubber. . . In the 1890s, Indianapolis was especially well-poised to become a bicycle-manufacturing mecca: the capitol city was once a major rubber-producing town. (The local industry tanked in the 1950s.) At the turn of the century, Indianapolis could boast of at least nine bicycle manufacturers, and the demand for pneumatic tires was a major spur to the creation of the Indianapolis Rubber Company.
In addition to being able to get a quick local replacement for a bad tire, in 1895 riders who worked in downtown offices could also take advantage of a “bicycle livery and boarding stable” located under the Brunswick Hotel on Monument Circle. A nearby bike hospital also offered a cure for “the last stages of consumption.”
Harry T. Hearsey, born in London, England, in 1863, grew up in Boston, then moved to Indianapolis at age 22. An early Hoosier cycling pioneer, he ran his own manufacturing company, which made not only bikes, but carriages, sleighs, portable heaters, and eventually automobiles.
Hearsey also operated a riding school, which catered in large part to women. Walter Marshall “Major” Taylor, the great African-American cyclist and Indianapolis native, worked as an instructor at Harry Hearsey’s Riding School, located at 116/118 N. Pennsylvania St. This ad from the German-language Indiana Tribüne touts Hearsey’s Reitschule (“often Tag und Abend.”)
Though he was a businessman with an obvious profit to turn, Hearsey may have been one of the many Americans who thought that women at the wheel was something to be praised. Even many who believed in “womanly purity” found something positive in cycling, as a writer in Lincoln, Nebraska, admitted: “The modern bicycle is one of the modern safeties of womanly purity,” he or she wrote. “She no longer needs to jostle through a crowd of men on the street corner or in the street car. The primest little maid of this city wears bloomers, rides a bicycle, and works in a printing office.”
Bike sales in Indiana boomed in the 1890s. Thomas Hay, of the firm of Hay & Willits at 113 W. Washington St., told the Indianapolis Journal in 1895 that “At the present time about 20 per cent of the wheels sold are for ladies, while two years ago I doubt if the sales of the ladies’ wheels reached 2 percent of the total.” Hay attributed part of the surge in sales to improvements in the manufacture of women’s bicycles, which had previously been neglected. In 1897, women were so important to the industry that the Central Cycle Manufacturing Company put them on the cover of their gorgeous trade catalog, designed and printed in “Arts and Crafts” style. It is a beautiful illustration of the generational gap between the old woman in skirts and the dashing Belle on Wheels.
(The Central Cycling Company of Indianapolis built the once-popular “Ben-Hur Bicycle,” named for the novel written by Hoosier literary giant Lew Wallace.)
(These wheelmen in Fort Wayne, Indiana, were some of the last aficionados of the highwheeler, old-fashioned even in 1900.)
Gradually, of course, the sight of women in bloomers wasn’t shocking to most Americans at all. Times changed fast, so fast that the great Hoosier songwriter Cole Porter could easily lampoon an earlier generation in the immortal lyrics of “Anything Goes”:
In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking.
But now, God knows,
Anything goes. . .
If driving fast cars you like,
If low bars you like,
If old hymns you like,
If bare limbs you like,
If Mae West you like,
Or me undressed you like,
Why, nobody will oppose.
Yet even before the Roaring Twenties and the day in 1934 when Cole Porter penned those lines, the ladies of the 1890s had already paved the way. Sportswomen in baseball and basketball literally “followed suit.” We salute them all.
(Women in Chicago play basketball in 1906.)
(The Star Bloomer Girls were an Indianapolis baseball team that toured the country around 1914. The pitcher and catcher, far right, were male but the whole team wore the same outfit.)
(Women of the Indianapolis Socialer Turnverein appear at a fencing match in Fort Wayne in the 1920’s. Athenaeum Turners Collection, IUPUI.)
Indiana newspapers are full of stories about women, cycling, and sports. Do a search at Hoosier State Chronicles to unearth more tales like these. Contact: staylor336 [at] gmail.com