Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Significance of a Diamond-Studded Bicycle, c1890

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Isabella reporting,

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.


storyteller said...

That is beautiful. And very, very cool. I never thought about bicycles as offering newfound freedom to women, but I guess it makes sense that they did. More mobility means more freedom.

Marti said...

I would love to see the back so that I could see the clasp.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Marti, I wonder if the clasp has been removed - I can't figure out where it would be, at least not from this photograph. It doesn't appear to be pinned onto the fabric backing, but "standing" for the photographer. I wish I could remember from the time I saw it at the museum!

Unknown said...

At a guess, I would think that they had pulled the pin out of the closure & stuck it at right angles to the bike frame. (I would also guess that the pin is mounted at the front 'fork' - or where the vertical stick with the handlebars meets the horizontal support bar - & where the same support bar meets the other vertical bar (underneath the bicycle seat). Pieces at this time would also normally have a safety chain to serve as a backup in case the brooch came undone but I am sure that they removed it because they usually aren't very attractive.

Karen Anne said...

I wonder if the chain cover is the clasp.

What a delightful piece of jewelry. I wish we knew who it belonged to and who gave it to her.

Anonymous said...

If you enlarge the photo I think that you can see the base if the 'pin' behind the bottom of the seat and another where the horizontal shaft meets the vertical support of the handlebars.
A fascinating and extravagant piece.

Karen said...

Thank-you so much for writing this; it is fascinating. The Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens first alerted many of us to the idea of women and bicycling being equated with the freedom of movement around the late 1890's and early 1900's ( I hope I'm remembering this correctly.). As a woman with Multiple Sclerosis, I, too, find bicycling liberating, as I cannot walk very well or far.
For whatever the reason, I advocate bicycling for everyone who is able to ride - for freedom, for healthy exercise, for truly seeing and experiencing your surroundings.

Karen Anne said...

I emailed MFA and they said "There is a pin stem that runs horizontally across the back." I'm not sure if I know more than I did before they answered :-)

Juliet Waldron said...

A sweet jeweled token of a nearly-forgotten period--The Time of the Bicycle--that efficient, happy machine. From the view of a cyclist who hit the road in the early 70's, I too remember astonishment when I first learned of America's early love affair with that convention buster, the bicycle. Many thanks.

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