Tuesday, January 26, 2010

What Goes Around

What goes around? A wheel, for one thing. Did you know that bicycles used to be called "wheels"? And their riders were wheelmen and wheelwomen. I love the sound of that. Also, "The Wheelwoman" was the name of a magazine for bicycling women, published from 1895 through 1897. It was edited by Mary Sargent Hopkins. Her blog pen name was "Merrie Wheeler".

Credit: Andrew Ritchie http://andrewritchie.wordpress.com/2010/01/16/the-wheelwoman-search-for-copies/
The other thing that goes around is fashion. It appears that the current debate over appropriate cycling attire has changed little since bicycles became popular in the 1890s. At this time, women's clothing was still very restrictive - floor length dresses, corsets, lots of drapery and puffed fabric. When women started to ride the bicycle, things changed rapidly. Bloomers were introduced to the horror of many refined Americans. Short skirts (as in knee-length), knickerbockers (as in knickers or pants), and even early skorts (split skirts with a panel that hid the split) started to become acceptable in public. Doctors, who had long disapproved of corsets due to their health effects, strongly discouraged their use in cycling and other forms of activity. In fact, doctors and feminists joined forces to promote the new women's fashions. The following article is by a physician, reportedly published in "The Outlook" in April, 1896 (I don't have the original). Click to view larger.


There are many, many similar articles about "wheeling" closthes for women...from the US, England, New Zealand, etc. A few more interesting links: an article on How to Ride the Bicycle and What to Wear by Mary Sargent Hopkins, and a seasonal article in the 1897 Brooklyn Eagle.

Disclaimer: To the best of my knowledge there is no copyright or other infringement for me to post these for non-commercial purposes.


  1. I am always amazed at your facts and figures, and often wonder where, and how, you find them. I knew only a little of this, and that from visits to the Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, N.Y., a frequent field trip for western and central New Yorkers. A great museum, too!

  2. interesting coincidence: your commentary on the term "wheelman/wheelwoman" and the very recent establishment of a local vintage bike club, "boston retro wheelmen".

  3. Kyle, most of my information comes from B! Supplemented by my excellent web research skillz. I've been past that museum, btw, but never visited. The bicycle really did play a big role in women's emancipation.

    somervillain, that is a great name! I would start a retro wheelwoman (and wheelman) club here but I think it would just be me and my one friend who rides an Oma. And maybe some guy I met once who rides an old Raleigh. You've got some good culture up in Boston.

  4. step-through: it's "cultcha" in these parts!