Bicycle History: Valentine’s Day … A Crime of Passion, the Tandem’s Aphrodisiac Effect & A Barrier-Breaking Bike Marriage

Photo illustration by Susan Cunningham

It’s Valentine’s Day, so let’s wander through the pages of history and see how the wheeled Cupid has brought people together … and torn them apart.

A skirt too short

Let’s begin with a cautionary tale, a lesson from yesteryear that holds true today: Never criticize the cycling attire of your loved one. It won’t end well.

According to an article in the December 15, 1897 edition of the Burlington Free Press, Wisconsin, Charles A. Ballack and his wife, whose name is not mentioned (a sign of the times), were in the midst of a tiff and living apart. The ever-optimistic Charles hoped for reconciliation. And then, he received a letter from his nameless, cycling wife …

… my wife wrote me a letter, showing that she was very much hurt because I had written her a letter criticising a picture she had sent me, taken in bicycle costume and with her wheel. I stated that I would have liked it better had the skirt been three inches longer, that I considered it too short for a married lady, according to my ideas … Then came the service of the divorce papers.

When Harry met Matilda

It was a fine fall afternoon in New Jersey, a perfect day for a ride. Astride his safety bicycle, Harry Docker spied a wheelwoman in distress, Miss Matilda Roeder. Young Harry stopped to help Matilda repair her wheel. “The two became friends and frequently went bicycling together,” according to the September 27, 1896 Philadelphia Times. And then …

Last night young Docker rode to Miss Roeder’s home with a tandem. The lovers rode to the residence of the Rev. John A. Dewald and, clad in bicycle costumes, were married. Then they started off on their wedding tour on the tandem.

 A bicycle built for two

Ah, yes, the tandem … let’s just say it was the 1890s version of the back seat of the cars of the future. The tandem was a love machine!

“A romance developed from a ride on a tandem bicycle in Saratoga county on Monday,” according to the May 29, 1897 edition of The Scranton Tribune, Pennsylvania. Joseph Bertram and Miss Jennie Lyle Ward “started on a bicycle built for two.” And then …

Before returning the idea occurred to them that it would be a good time to get married. They straightaway went to the parsonage of the Rev. D. M. Schell and were made one. Their wedding journey consisted of a return trip to the starting point on the tandem.

A crime of passion

William Henry Smith met the fair Adella Laura Tucker, taught her how to ride a bike “and together they fairly scorched down the rose-lined path to undying love,” according to The San Francisco Examiner, September 10, 1896.

Romantic, right? 

So much so that the smitten William soon proposed, Adella accepted and they planned their wedding and a cycling honeymoon. All they needed were two bicycles, which William promised to acquire. I guess the two bikes they had been riding weren’t quite adequate for a honeymoon journey of such romantic proportions. And then …

He kissed her goodbye and proceeded to Portland. He secured two bicycles from the Overman Wheel Company … on the pretense that he desired to take a spin with a lady friend. Instead of this he took himself and the wheels aboard the steamer State of California and started for San Francisco.

The long arm of the law quickly caught up with William, and he was arrested and tossed in the slammer. As for Adella, it seems she was only 13 and “was placed in charge of the police matron … who will return her to her father.” 

What’s mine is mine

The lovely young Cissie Brooks “expressed a strong desire to spend her holidays on a bicycle,” according to the Leicester Chronicle, England, October 28, 1899. And so, a man named Newman, no first name, “at once purchased a machine, but according to his own story, only lent it.” It cost 6 pounds, so it must have been a used bike.

As you’ve already surmised, they broke up. Perhaps Newman criticized her cycling attire. Cissie strongly believed the bike to be her property, a gift. No backsies! Newman thought otherwise (Newman!!!), wanted it back, an argument ensued, escalated, and they ended up in court. According to the story …

Newman: “I only lent it to you, that’s all, and now I want it back.”

Cissie: “You gave it to me a as a free gift; how can you say you didn’t?”

Newman: “Well, I wants my machine or the [six pounds] I paid for it.”

Judge French: I am afraid you won’t get it this time. You gave it to the defendant during the courtship, and she is entitled to keep the machine.”

Newman: “My money’s gone then.”

Bridging the divide on a bike

Life was a lot different in 1897. The 13th Amendment had ended slavery only 32 years prior, and racism, segregation, the lack of opportunity and basic civil rights were a frightening way of life for African-Americans everywhere in America.

But, every once in a while, a bit of progress. With the help of a bike …

A sensation has been unearthed in Brooklyn in the story that a white woman of means had married her negro bicycle instructor. The Times-Democrat, New Orleans, November 14, 1897

The two were secretly married on November 20, 1896, according a story in October 27, 1897 edition of The World newspaper, New York. There was a headline that read: “Brooklyn Society Shocked.”

The woman was Minnie Provost, widow of John S. Provost and, “She has always had wealth and social position,” according to The World

The man was James A. Cutlar, who “came from North Carolina in the spring of 1896, and being an expert wheelman, soon had a place as an instructor in Schwalbach’s Academy, on Fulton Street.” The story goes on to say that Mr. Schwalbach said he “hired negroes so that we might obviate any familiarities between our customers and our instructors. The women who come here are women of social standing and means, and we wish to protect them. Cutlar was only here a short time.”

Long enough, it seems, for a relationship to blossom, despite the obstacles.

According to an October 27, 1897 article in The Sun, it wasn’t that unusual “to see a white woman riding unsteadily through the street with a negro teacher running or riding behind. That Mrs. Provost had Cutlar follow her all the way to Coney Island and for ten-mile trips out on the Merrick road did not seem to her friends anything more than a well-to-do woman’s whim.”

There was, of course, a price to be paid for their “shocking” marriage. Mrs. Cutlar was shunned by her family and friends. “The woman was turned out of this house,” her sister-in-law was quoted as saying. “Where they are now is not known, although it is said that they are living on Long Island.”

The couple disappeared from the pages of history by the end of 1897, never to be written about again. I hope they were able to live happily ever after. And spend many a fine afternoon astride their wheels.

And then, the age of the auto and Henry Ford did this to the bicycle …

Happy Valentine’s Day

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