“We rode our bicycles to the courthouse. They were the most wondrously modern conveyances, right down to the specialized attire they entailed. …Pedaling past Swinburne traffic felt deliciously urgent and dangerous.” —Premeditated Myrtle
Summer 2020 is seeing a surge in the popularity of bike riding, thanks in large part to coronavirus concerns, and efforts to find new ways to enjoy the outdoors in a responsible, socially-distant way. The late 19th century also saw a cycling boom, with the development of the modern bicycle. For my heroine Myrtle Hardcastle, her bicycle is a key part of her crime-solving equipment. And for many middle-class girls in the Victorian era, the bicycle represented even more.
During the 19th century, two huge changes swept the globe: the twin forces of industrialization and colonization. A direct consequence of these developments was the emergence of a new sort of middle class of clerks, businessmen, bankers, lawyers, bureaucrats, and civil servants. College-educated men filled the offices of corporations and government on a scale never seen before.
As middle class jobs exploded, middle class incomes went up, and for the first time, many families could survive on only a single income—the man’s. Previously, middle-income families of shopkeepers, manufacturers, tradespeople, merchants, and more would run businesses together. But in the Victorian era, it became a mark of status—and, indeed, virtue—for a man to make enough money to support his family and employ at least one servant. Gender roles took on a strict division: women belonged in the domestic sphere of home and family, and men belonged in the public world of business and politics. Girls and women were expected to be the “angels of the home,” to provide a soothing respite for their menfolk, away from the bustle of worldly cares of running the empire.
This resulted in a vast population of affluent, well-educated women with plenty of leisure time and disposable income. Middle class girls and women began to question why they weren’t going off to college and pursuing careers and voting and running the world. (Meanwhile, of course, working class girls and women were too busy working their fingers to the bone to worry about how to occupy their half-day off per week.)
Enter the bicycle. Variations on human-powered wheeled vehicles had been around since the Renaissance, but it took the ingenuity and technology of the 19th century to develop the bicycle as we know it today. It was an immediate sensation among those who could afford it.
Early bicycles were expensive, so they appealed primarily to those with the income and free time to appreciate them. But what the bicycle offered middle class girls most was freedom.
For the first time in generations, young women could move through their world independently, under their own power. They did not have to rely on a coachman or a chaperone to get somewhere—the bicycle was, by design, a solo vehicle. As American activist Frances Willard (who learned to ride at age 53!) put it, “I began to feel that myself plus the bicycle equaled myself plus the world.”
Not surprisingly, there were naysayers. Doctors cautioned against the effect such vigorous exercise might have on girls’ health, and some people worried that the sight of girls on bicycles would prove dangerously distracting for men. (Naturally, it did not occur to them that a better solution for that problem was for the men look away, not for the girls to stop riding.) But girls didn’t stop riding, and by the mid-1890s, it was clear to everyone that they never would.
There was one genuine obstacle to overcome, however, and that was that the typical female attire of the day was impractical if not hazardous in this new sport. Not to worry: the Victorian fashion industry was just as inventive as all the others, and enthusiastically entered the market. Cyclists could choose from all sorts of specialized garments, like the puffy bloomers many of us are familiar with today, or convertible skirts for those not quite daring enough to sport pantaloons in public (many designed and patented by women). Accessories abounded, including specially designed shoes and boots, capes, and hats. And let us not forget that most quintessential of Victorian women’s garments, the corset.
Bicycle manufacturers worked to make their products more affordable, and as the cost of bicycles came down, even more girls and young women were empowered to see where this new vehicle might lead them.