Do You Have A Bad Case of the Bicycle Face?

In my last post, there was a “bicycle face” joke. And someone asked: “What’s bicycle face?”

Well, since you asked … the symptoms, according to an article in the July 29, 1895 issue of the Buffalo Courier, are a face that is “usually flushed, but sometimes pale, often with the lips more or less drawn and the beginnings of dark shadows under the eyes, and always with an expression of weariness that becomes more pronounced as the excitement of riding disappears …”

Wow, that sounds serious!

The bicycle face also features, according to an August 19, 1895 story in the Ottawa Daily Citizen

*A wide and wildly expectant expression of the eyes.

*Strained lines about the mouth.

*A general focusing of all the features toward the center

Bicycle face was first diagnosed in Britain, by Dr. Arthur Shadwell, the foremost expert on the “malady” and a fierce anti-cyclist. He wrote a paper titled The Hidden Dangers of Cycling and stated that riding the wheel causes nervous exhaustion, internal inflammation, appendicitis and chronic dysentery. Shadwell asked rhetorically: “Has anyone ever seen persons on bicycles talking and laughing and looking jolly, like persons engaged in any other amusement?”

How could they, what with all the chronic dysentery?

The Nebraska State Journal (April 4, 1897) fired back at Shadwell: “No doctor, it is the seriousness of pure exhileration, a delicious concentration of enjoyment, that is the secret of ‘bicycle face.'”

Wheelwomen were especially prone to the dreaded bicycle face. As if they didn’t have enough problems, back then! For example …

There once was a young maiden named Grace

Once the prettiest girl in the place

But she changed a great deal

Since she took up the wheel

For now she has a bicycle face

This ditty is courtesy of the February 25, 1895 issue of the Jackson County Banner (Indiana).

While Grace was fictional, the daughter of the Reverend A. A. Dixon, head of the Fourteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, was quite real. She was a cyclist and, according to her father (in a February 6, 1897 newspaper story) …

“In my boyhood I thought the most beautiful sight was a beautiful woman on a beautiful horse. There are degrees of ugliness, but I think the ugliest sight is a woman on a bicycle. Nevertheless, my daughter rides one. If she wants to be ugly, why, I am willing she should be. If you young women want to be ugly in the fresh air don’t let my opinion interfere with your bicycling.”

I know, I also feel sorry for the reverend’s poor daughter. And wife. And any other woman he came in contact with.

Bicycle-face jokes were quite popular in the 1890s. Here’s a couple …

Peterbee: What on earth has given Smitherton such a bicycle face? He doesn’t ride a bicycle?

Smythe: No, but he had to buy three bicycles for his family to ride.

“’At last,” exclaimed the gargoyle, with a hideous grin as he peered down from the sculpture of Notre Dame, ‘my peculiar style is coming into fashion again!’ The preponderance of bicycle face indeed striking.”

***

The automobile was becoming more and more popular by the late 1890s, and a growing number of drivers were diagnosed with a bad case of “horseless-carriage face.” According to a June 25, 1897 story in the Pittston Gazette (Pennsylvania) …

“The ‘bicycle face’ will now yield the palm to that awful visage known as ‘horseless-carriage face.’ … Once seated on this powerful engine of destruction, with a firm grip on the lever, even the fairest countenance takes on the same attributes of this ‘horseless-carriage face.’”

A few years later, a couple of bike-shop owners from Dayton, Ohio were the first to be diagnosed with “airplane face.”

Interested in more wacky, fascinating cycling stories? Click here for my post about my book: The Boy With No Legs Who Rode Like the Wind. Click here for the link to purchase the book on etsy.

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