My recent story on Bicycle Face is just the start of the numerous cycling-related maladies that afflicted wheelmen and wheelwomen in the 1890s. From the tops of their heads to the tips of their toes, these cyclist mangled, warped and ruined their bodies with every pedal stroke. Or, so it seemed, according to several prominent physicians.
Actually, the problems started years before … in 1869. “Medical men are condemning velocipedes,” according to a story in the Athens Post (Tennessee), March 5, 1869. “They assert that the bicycle causes abscesses, ruptures and malformations.”
Let’s skip ahead to mid 1890s and the bicycle boom, fueled by the widespread introduction of the safety bicycle and pneumatic tire, is in full swing. Everyone’s upon the wheel and this is causing all sorts of medical issues …
The Bicycle Stoop
Oh, my aching back!
The dastardly bicycle stoop “is now a well recognized deformity, and few men who have devoted much time or attention to racing are entirely free from it, while in many racers the marked dorsal curvature forward (kyphosis) is permanent, and unsightly and injurious to the health,” proclaimed a story in the December 15, 1895 edition of the Star Tribune of Minneapolis.
A year earlier, at a bike show in London, an ingenious invention promised to cure the Bicycle Stoop. According to newspaper reports, the new device “consisted chiefly of a rest and air cushion, against which the rider could lean forward part of his body while he pedaled.”
“Some riders, especially women, complain of having their feet ‘go asleep’ after travelling three or four miles. In most cases the probable explanation is that the soles of the shoes are too thin. With rat-trap pedals there should be a good thickness of leather between the foot and the sharp points of steel, otherwise the pressure will cause the numbness which is described as the feet being asleep.” The Chicago Chronicle, August 9, 1896.
The problem of tingling in the toes and numb feet persists to this day, although nerve pressure and improperly placed cleats seem to be more of a problem than the too-thin leather soles of shoes.
Pigeon Toed and Fancy Free
While sleepy feet is sort of a real thing, I’m not so sure about this foot-related malady …
“An easterner has raised a cry of alarm over the idea that the use of the bicycle makes women pigeon toed … [he] ascertained by actual count that three out of every five of the women dismounted walked with a slovenly, slouchy gait, with toes turned in at an angle that would give a ballet master hysterics … The opinion was confirmed, with the additional evidence that bicycling has a tendency also to destroy all beauty of the ankle.” The Akron Beacon Journal, Ohio, August 13, 1897
This so-called expert is never mentioned by name in any of the many articles that wrote about his claims, so … they must be true!
Warning for Wheelwomen
Women cyclists had it a lot rougher than their male counterparts.
“No girl who has not done growing should be allowed to bicycle to any great extent … and no girl should ever be allowed to bicycle uphill.” The Chicago Chronicle, April 5, 1896
If cycling was bad for the feet, how about those other extremities, the hands? Yep, it was bad for them too. Really bad.
Miss Mary McCarthy, an expert wheelwoman, had such a bad case of bicycle hand that …
… a doctor was called. He found it necessary to sever a muscle between the thumb and forefinger in order to restore the hand’s usefulness. The Courier-News, Bridgewater, New Jersey, July 8, 1897
The article goes on to say that bicycle hand was common and that the numbness, and sometimes pain, “lasted only a few hours, but, in some instances, it was of several days’ duration.”
Bicycle hand is a real thing, and to this day some cyclists develop tingling in their fingers and some numbness. I’m pretty sure there’s no need to sever any muscles and that this advice, from the story in the Courier-News, remains true more than 100 years later …
“If cyclists remember that the handle bar should be held lightly, and not gripped like grim death, the case [of Miss Mary McCarty] may be the last, as well as the first, of the year. The bicycle hand is not a necessary consequence of cycling.”
Let’s get back to the face …
Eye specialists across the country were advertising that they could help cure “bicycle eye.” In his ad, Prof. Goldstein, a Great Falls, Montana eye specialist wrote that …
“This condition is mainly produced by strain imposed upon the ocular muscles, because of the peculiar position of the rider’s head and eyes … We correct all cases of Hypermetropia, Myopia and Astigmatism.” Great Falls Tribune, August 19, 1900.
“It is the most recent development and is brought about by the enlargement of the muscle on the outside and back of the calf. The optical effect of the growth is to give the leg a kink, as though the shin bones were bowed upward.” Buffalo Evening News, New York, August 5, 1895
I’ve been working hard for years to develop a case of bicycle leg(s) and now, I go and find out it’s a bad thing. Darn.
“To the numerous cyclists’ ailments must be added the ‘bicycle nose.’ A doctor, writing to a medical journal, states that a large proportion of his patients who consult him for nasal troubles assert that the mischief has either begun, or been greatly augmented since they have taken to the bicycle. While the cyclist rushes through the air the mucous lining of the nose collects the dust, and local irritation is set up.” The Wheelwoman and Society Cycling News, London, December 11, 1897
“There is a species of throat disease known as ‘bicycle throat,’ produced by continued riding, and the symptoms are dryness, irritation and inflammation of the throat and larynx. The Meriden Daily Republican, August 2, 1892
Ya Gotta Have (Bicycle) Heart
“Chicago – Dr. C. S. Station, who was in charge of the examination of recruits for the regular army in this city, has caused a sensation among medical men by declaring that an habitual fast rider of bicycles, or a ‘scorcher,’ is unfit, physically, to serve as a solider in the army, because of ‘bicycle heart,’ caused by excessive exercise in riding a wheel.” The Coffeyville Daily Journal, Kansas, July 1, 1898
Here’s a joke (at least I think it’s a joke) from the Buffalo Evening News, October 29, 1896 …
“Scorcher’s a perfect wreck.”
“What ails him?”
The doctor says he has bicycle heart, bicycle head, bicycle face, bicycle eyes, bicycle teeth and bicycle knees.”
OK, I’ve run out of bicycle body-part stories. So has the human body. Be safe out there!
This story is one of the dozens from my cycling history book, The Boy With No Legs Who Rode Like the Wind. Here’s the link to my story about it and here’s the etsy link to get the book. Lots more great stories like this one.