In the 1890s, more and more women began to ride bicycles, both for exercise, convenience, and independence. As can be imagined, this horrified a good many people, who saw women on wheels as a dangerous threat to families, morals, health, and, of course, the fair, delicate flower of womanhood.
We expect to see women cyclists defended by Susan B. Anthony (who famously wrote that bicycling "has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.") But the English novelist John Galsworthy (1867-1933)? The Nobel Prize-winning author of The Forsyte Saga evidently had his own strong feelings about women on bicycles – at least if we are to believe this passage from his novel, On Forsyte 'Change, taking place in 1890:
"Such historians as record the tides of social manners and morals, have neglected the bicycle. Yet would it be difficult to deny that this 'invention of the devil'...has been responsible for more movement in manners and morals than anything since Charles the Second. At its bone-shaking inception innocent, because...[it was] only dangerous to the lives and limbs of the male sex, it began to be a dissolvent of the most powerful type when accessible to the fair in its present form. Under its influence, wholly or in part, have wilted chaperons, long and narrow skirts, tight corsets, hair that would come down, black stockings, thick ankles, large hats, prudery and fear of the dark; under its influence, wholly or in part, have bloomed week-ends, strong nerves, strong legs, strong language, knickers, knowledge of make and shape, knowledge of woods and pastures, equality of sex, good digestion and professional occupation – in four words, the emancipation of woman."
Of course, this passage exists to fly in the florid face of Swithin 'Four-in-hand' Forsyte, an aged bachelor who promptly writes his very modern niece out of his will after he sees her astride a bicycle. While young Euphemia may have looked as entirely proper as the young lady, above, it's more likely the scandalized Swithin saw her more like the contemporary out-of-control women (with monocles!) in the satirical cartoon, right.
Above: Julia Blaess Klager, Michigan Bicyclist (detail), 1890s, photograph from Studio of Susan T. Cook, Ann Arbor, MI. See here for more information. Below: Velocipeding, drawing from the cover of The Ferret, A Weekly Literary,Satirical, & Theatrical Journal of the Age, March 1870, London.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.