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.
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
- 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?
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.
I love the messenger girl and boy messenger pictures! I’m also looking for a primary source text critiquing The New Woman on a bicycle…