Book Notes

Women's Liberation and the Birth of the Bicycle

June 27, 2020

The evolution of the bicycle, as told by the Margaret Guroff book The Mechanical Horse

Notes from my friend Margaret Guroff's 2018 book "The Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life."

Women popularized the bicycle and the bicycle, in turn, freed women to travel about town with ease, liberating them from the homestead.

Today's bicycle is a perfect example of how a successful technology starts off as a novelty, is adopted by a niche audience and soon thereafter -- if it's actually useful -- becomes essential to modern life, shedding its status as a 'technology' altogether.

In the late 19th century, the bicycle evolved to meet people's latent need to move around the city, just as the train was then making it possible to move around the country. And this mobility broke a number of cultural barriers, offering women an equality, at least in terms of getting about.

Like many technologies, the bike has been driven forward (literally) by our relentless push to make more efficient use of time. Progress in the 19th century could be tracked by the collapse in the time it would take people, objects and messages to get from one place to another.

In 1813, a cargo wagon drawn by three horses would take two weeks to get between Boston and Philadelphia, due to the wretched state of the roads. Steamboats traveled faster, upwards of 10 mph. Going from News Orleans to Cincinnati would take only 11-12 days by boat, down from 90 days by road. And so the country went from 100 miles of canals in 1813 to about 3,300 miles by 1840. Trains were twice as fast than steamers, and weren’t stymied by the weather. And so by 1840, railroads had equaled the number of canal miles.

The evolution of the bicycle, as told by the Margaret Guroff book The Mechanical Horse

"Space has been a sort of enemy to enterprise, and a great part of our energies has been devoted to what has been called the annihilation of space," a bicycle industry magazine noted in 1869, explaining the appeal of the bike as a time-saving instrument.

As a potential saver of time, the bicycle took a good half century to evolve into its current form, with each refinement of the design making it more appealing to a larger set of users.

The first recognizable, mid-19th century, precursor to the bicycle was the draisine (also: "hobby-horse," or "running machine"). They had no chains nor pedals; People just pushed with their feet. Great for going downhill, not so much for going back up. Draisines were more an oddity than anything.

The next evolution for personal wheel'ed transpo came with the velocipede, a multi-wheeled vehicle propelled by a foot crank. The pedal opened up a new world. Those who went fast on these machines did not wobble, going against intuition. A letter to Scientific American in 1868, noted that “a carriage or a velocipede with but two wheels…should maintain an upright position is, to the superficial observer, one of the most surprising feats of practical mechanics.”

This observation, by the way, would also prove instrumental for the Wright Brothers -- who were bicycle builders -- in the creation of the flying machine early in the following century.

"Walking is on its last legs," gushed one magazine, in an article entitled "velocipede-mania"

"The Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life"
by Margaret Guroff
University of Texas Press(2016)

In 1869, a German Mechanic invented the wire-spoke wheel. This allowed manufacturers to enlarge the front wheel to an almost absurd height -- the larger the wheel the more distance would be traversed through a single rotation of a pedal (this was still before the use of chains or gears).

This discovery rapidly mutated the velocipede's front wheel's radius being nearly the length of the average man's legs, it would seem. A high wheel could speed along at 17 mph, well over the 7 mph at best of a standard peddlers of the day.

This, of course, made the enormously front-wheeled machines ridiculously cumbersome, suitable for only the most adventurous of men. Difficult to mount and dismount. And, with just the slightest irregularity in the road, the driver might tumble -- headfirst! -- into the road ("taking a header")! Not surprisingly, such high wheels were only favored by the male hipsters of the day, a modest market at best. Only about 50 high wheelers were in the country in 1878, but that had grown to about 16,000 by 1888.

The evolution of the bicycle, as told by the Margaret Guroff book The Mechanical Horse

But what about the rest of the populace -- the ladies and the olds? High wheelers were, by nature, elitist. Sure there were tricycles. But have you ever driven one? They are cumbersome and heavy at best, and terrible on bad roads, the only kinds of roads America had at the time.

A new set of two-wheeled bikes used a chain to link the pedal to the rear wheels, allowing the front wheel to shrink, bringing the rider closer to the ground. And with this modification, the bicycle rode more comfortably, broadening its appeal. These bikes, the kind we most associate with today's form of bicycle, were called "safety bikes" to distinguish them from the high wheelers. And in 1888, manufacturers created a dropframe version that could accommodate the long skirts of women (though many female riders took to wearing bloomers on their new bikes).

For a time, the high wheelers and the safety bikes "coexisted like Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, with the bigger, older species continuing to inhabit its traditional niche while the smaller, nimbler creature carved out a new one," Guroff wrote.

In the end, practicality won out. The High Wheelers that used to cost as much as $300 were being discounted to $10. And while the safety bikes originally went for a relatively expensive $150, by 1895 that cost had shrunk to $75, thanks to fierce market competition from the 300 companies that collectively produced 500,000 bikes that year.

A large number of these new bicycle owners were women who, in turn, were granted freedoms verboten even a decade before. Because women's skirts could get tangled the gears, it became permissionable in society to wear dresses with hems above the knee. Women could soon opt out of wearing dresses while riding altogether, and wear bloomers instead.

Better yet, it granted women-folk mobility. "Wives who would stay close to home, venturing out only on foot, by trolley, or, if wealthy, with a driver and a horse-driven carriage, were suddenly able to travel miles on their own," Guroff wrote. "Being so mobile, and so visible, was a revelation to many."

In a time when young women couldn't be in the company with a young man without a chaperone, they could go bicycle riding with one. In fact, some pundits feared that the relatively skimpy clothing and unsupervised traveling bikes brought would introduce wanton behavior in women, some of which, one lobbying group implored, may lead them into being outcasts and even prostitutes (?!?).

Nonetheless, others recognized the bicycle as a true force of social change. "I think [bicycling] has done more to emancipate women, than any on thing in the world," said Susan B. Anthony to a news reporter reporter in 1896.

The evolution of the bicycle, as told by the Margaret Guroff book The Mechanical Horse

Photos: Bushwick Friends getting around town on their bikes.