Bicycle History: Women on Wheels … Hat-Pins, Corsets, a Daring Downhill Run & Racing Horses

My fun & true bicycle-history stories have been dominated by the men. So far. Hey, it’s not my fault: That’s the way society worked in the 1800s. And then: The bicycle! Women were not to be denied and, despite some pushback from the men, they took to the wheel in droves, wearing long skirts and tight, lung-constricting corsets (at first).

Here are a few of my favorite wheelwoman stories, (more to come in future posts) …

A “Masher” On A Wheel

This was the headline in the January 15, 1898 edition of the Yorkville Enquirer, South Carolina. According to this syndicated story, which ran in papers across the country, a young woman was out for a ride and …

… was much annoyed by a “masher” on a wheel, who persisted in attempting to engage her in conversation.

And so, this ingenious woman slowed down, stopped and leaned over to examine one of the pedals on her bike, pretending something was amiss. She furrowed her brow and affixed her face with a forlorn look (I’m trying to write like they did back then!) And then, the fun started …

“Allow me to assist you,” said he. She said nothing, but releasing her wheel to him took his to hold, while he went down on his knees to the offending pedal. He was no sooner on his marrows, with his face to the ground, than she deftly extracted a hat-pin and inserted the point into the rear tire of his wheel. By the time he had discovered there was absolutely nothing wrong with the pedal … the hat-pin was resting inoffensively in its proper place. As she whirled merrily out the avenue a would-be masher stood by his bicycle with a tire as flat as the proverbial pancake.

There’s so much to be learned from this story: Always carry a hat-pin on a ride; the term “flat as a pancake” dates back at least 120 years; and they used the word masher to describe a stalker/creep back then. Oh, and don’t mess with this lady. She must have been a suffragette.

What to Wear?

The bicycle helped free women from the cruel captivity of couture. 

Akron Daily Democrat, Ohio,  January 17, 1895 …

Release from the fearful bondage of long skirts is surely coming for women. It is coming through the bicycle, the gymnasium and the swimming school.

The Standard Union, Brooklyn, January 11, 1896 …

… one of the least noticed reforms of the bicycle, yet one of the greatest, is … the doing away with corsets and heavy lacing. This means for women that, though the waist may be larger, the lungs will be fuller, the whole system will be improved and given an opportunity to glory in the fountain of health … every woman in the land would possess a machine did she but know of this one great benefit.

A Feat by Two Ladies

This was the headline on a January 22, 1889 story in the Passaic Daily News, New Jersey. It seems Nettie Mulford and J. T. Mulford were quite the cyclists and “know every road in Essex County, and take rides almost daily unaccompanied by gentlemen.”

Who needs men when you have one of those new-fangled safety bikes. On this particular ride, the daring duo “trundled” their bikes to the top of the toboggan run on nearby Orange Mountain in New Jersey. And then, the fun started …

[They] sped down the trough at the rate of a mile a minute. It was a dangerous experiment, for had anything occurred to their wheels they would have been thrown over the side of the chute and killed. They did not use brakes or pedals in the descent, and were so delighted with the new experience that they repeated it without incident. There was no ice on the slide when they made the experiment. After the second run a crowd began to gather, and this deterred them from continuing the sport.

Elsa von Blumen

The first women’s cycling champion

Orleans County Monitor, Vermont, July 24, 1882 …

Out on the bicycle grounds of [New Orleans] Miss Elsa Von Blumen rode a bicycle in a race with two horses – Mary Wilson and Stella – mile heats, best two in three. The woman won the race, as she is quite apt to do in all the races of life if given half a chance.

Von Blumen is a fascinating character, the United State’s first female cycling champion. She raced horses (which was quite common back then), men and then Louise Armaindo, the second great women’s bicycle champion. I’m researching more about these two, so stay tuned and sign up on my blog’s home page for email alerts so you don’t miss this and other fun, funny and fascinating bike-history stories. Like this one.

Here’s the link to my Biking France books, and Numbskull. Numbskull? Here’s the link to the first 14 chapters of Numbskull, my cycling-centric novel in case you’re curious. Reading it is almost as fun as cycling down a toboggan run at a mile a minute.


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