Diamonds may be a girl's best friend, and those best friends usually appear in a ring. But the unknown lady who wore this brooch was probably revealing a good deal more about herself than that she liked sparkly jewelry.
True, the small (it's less than 3" long) bicycle fashioned of gold with diamond "tires" and a ruby lantern does have plenty of flash. Most likely a custom-designed piece, it's beautifully made: the wheels spin and the pedals turn, and there's even a tiny bicycle chain that turns with the rear wheel. It would have been expensive, a brooch for a lady who probably already had other, more serious diamond pieces in her jewel box.
But a bicycle brooch wouldn't have been merely whimsical in the 1890s. According to the museum's website, this represents a very specific kind of British bicycle designed for a serious cyclist, the rare woman who wore "rational cycling dress" or bloomers for riding. Most 19thc women's bicycles omitted the support bar above the wheels to accommodate long skirts; today many women's bicycles still don't have that bar, even though young girls getting their first flashy pink bikes aren't going to be riding them in trailing petticoats. The woman who wore this brooch would have understood the difference, and would likely have been proud to show how dedicated she was to her sport.
Yet a bicycle brooch in the 1890s would have suggested much more than just sport. Bicycles offered women an exhilarating new freedom, an ability to travel on their own and at will in a way that they'd never experienced before (see this earlier blog post on the subject.) A woman riding a bicycle was a strong, capable woman who didn't need to rely on a man to determine where she going. By extension, this new freedom was closely tied to the suffragist movement. A diamond-studded bicycle brooch would have been seen as making a statement for female independence, and for women's suffrage. Above: Bicycle brooch, probably English, mid-1890s. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photograph courtesy of the MFA, Boston.
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.