Gearing up for Bike Month with Primary Sources

This is a guest post by Bernice Ramirez. Bernice worked with the education team at the Library of Congress as part of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) Internship Program.

May is Bike Month, a time to celebrate the many reasons that people around the world ride bicycles. In the United States, bicycles exploded in popularity in the 1890s. Although at first limited to the wealthy, bicycle use quickly became widespread. They were used for commuting to work and school, recreation and sport, much like now. Clubs of bicycle riders, called “wheelmen,” were formed. A sampling of Library of Congress primary sources from the the end of the nineteenth century suggests that changes brought by bicycles extended beyond transportation.

The bicycle – the great dress reformer of the nineteenth century!

Controversy developed around women’s ridership of bicycles, particularly related to fashion. During the Victorian era, women often wore long skirts that covered their ankles, and some considered women in pants improper. For many women, however, wearing pants while riding was simply more comfortable.

Bicycles allowed women more freedom and the rise of the bicycle coincided with the image of a “New Woman” who was more likely to take work outside of the home and become involved in politics, such as the women’s suffrage movement. This political cartoon by Frederick Burr Opper, for example, shows a woman engaging in various activities that were perceived to be unladylike.

Early bicycle culture provides an excellent opportunity to explore the lasting–and sometimes surprising!–consequences of a new technology

The “new woman” and her bicycle – there will be several varieties of her

Teachers can:

  • Challenge students to explain Opper’s message in this political cartoon, and to cite evidence for their ideas. How does the woman in pants at the center of the cartoon contrast with the woman in the frame (behind her)?
  • Encourage students to compare and contrast this picture of a messenger boy and this one of a messenger girl. What differences in the way they are dressed do you notice? How does their style differ from modern forms of dress?
  • Select a few primary sources from and ask students how many predictions of change they can identify.

What other modes of transportation have had a major impact on U.S. society?

One Comment

  1. Laura Kloock
    July 22, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    Gender roles and differences of expectations between men and women are frequently discussed in American history. The ridership of bicycles is a a very interesting topic that ties in very well. Great use or primary resources.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.