What did Susan B. Anthony say had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world?” What was called the “devil’s advance agent” by the Women’s Rescue League president Charlotte Smith? What caused women to cast off their corsets and wear bloomers in public?
Would you believe they were talking about the bicycle?
When Albert Pope started manufacturing the first American bicycles in 1877, few could have imagined the effects the bicycle would have on women. Early bicycles, with large front wheels and small rear wheels, were dangerous and difficult to ride. The iron or wooden wheels were unforgiving and ill suited to nineteenth century roads. Then, in 1887, a new style of bicycle was introduced to the American public. Called a “safety,” the new bicycle had rubber tires and two wheels of equal size. Suddenly, bicycles became a practical form of transportation.
A bicycling boom followed, and women were eager to take part.
Shasta County was no exception to this boom. Bicycles served as both a form of transportation and a new opportunity for recreation. In the late 1800’s, bicycles shared the streets with stagecoaches and horses. Sharing the streets with multiple forms of transportation was common at the turn of the century.
Local author, A.G.J. Paine wrote that as a young man in the 1880’s, he rode by train from San Francisco to Sisson (now Mount Shasta) and from there rode his bicycle the remaining 65 miles to his grandmother’s house in Fall River.
A popular bicycle shop in Shasta County was owned by the Wright brothers, James and Albert. Like other shops, bikes were sold alongside automobiles and intended to be used on the same roads.
The Wrights were known for riding their bicycles from Palo Cedro to Redding for work. They also encouraged women to participate in bicycling.
Bicycling posed unique challenges for women. Although the general health benefits of bicycling were recognized, many worried about the effects of bicycle riding on the health – and morals – of women. Many people in the nineteenth century believed that exercise would harm women’s reproductive organs. Many people, like Charlotte Smith, worried about women and men riding bicycles together without the watchful eyes of chaperones.
The standards of women’s dress further hampered bicycling efforts. Typical 19th century women were encumbered by corsets, ankle-length skirts, layers of petticoats, bustles, and crinolines. Their clothing could weigh up to 25 pounds – making cycling cumbersome, if not impossible. Early bicycle manufacturers experimented with sidesaddle riding options, placing both pedals on the same side of the wheel. These efforts were soon deemed impractical, and women started looking for alternatives.
Back in the 1850’s, groups of women had advocated for shorter skirts, with baggy ankle-length pants underneath. This style became known as the Bloomer Costume, or bloomers, after Amelia Bloomer advocated it in her newspaper. However, the backlash against women wearing any sort of pants was so great that women had mostly abandoned the effort by the time bicycles became popular. Women bicyclists, however, found bloomers perfect for cycling. Divided skirts and shorter hems soon followed. Still covered from neck to ankle, but freed from corsets and long skirts, women embraced bicycling in large numbers.
Soon, women realized the liberating power of bicycles. Bicycles allowed women to travel farther from home. The feeling of physical exertion and the ability to travel under their own power were new experiences for many women. Suffragist Frances Willard wrote, upon learning to ride at age 53, “I began to feel that myself plus the bicycle equaled myself plus the world.”
In 1896, suffragist and women’s rights leader Susan B. Anthony wrote that the bicycle, “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” Women started to test their physical limits on the bicycle.
In 1894-95, Annie Kopchovsky became the first woman to circumvent the globe by bicycle, ship, and train. Kopchovsky used the last name Londonderry during her ride, after one of her sponsors. Kopchovsky became as famous for her stories of robberies, accidents, and narrow escapes – most of which were probably fabricated – as for her athletic feats. Kopchovsky’s escapades prompted the San Francisco Chronicle to report, “She has a degree of self-assurance somewhat unusual to her sex.”
The bicycle was not the only transportation option to debut in the 1890’s. The first automobiles were also appearing on the scene. Mass-production started to make the automobile possible for ordinary Americans in the early 1900’s.
The bicycle soon became a tool for recreation, not transportation. The Federal Road Act of 1916 and the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921 poured millions of dollars into building better roads – for automobiles.
The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 created the interstate highway system, almost all of which is closed to bicycles. Few cities planned for anything other than automobiles on their streets. Bike lanes, and even sidewalks, became an afterthought in most American urban planning.
Shasta Living Streets is a local organization working to do just that. The organization’s goal is to allow all members of the community, regardless of age, to lead an active lifestyle and bicycle and walk every day for transportation, health, and joy. Shasta Living Streets believes that our natural outdoor recreational attractions, coupled with a focus on active transportation, can make the region a top destination for families, businesses, and tourists.
Phillips believes it is possible. “Imagine,” she says, “if children grew up knowing that all trips under one mile were going to be by bike. Imagine the change in our community’s health and happiness!”
To learn more about the history of women and cycling locally join the Shasta Historical Society for their monthly program — this Saturday, Feb. 15, at 1:30 p.m. at the Shasta College building in downtown Redding. Speaker will be Anne Thomas from Shasta Shasta Living Streets is a local organization that relies on public support.
For more information, go to ShastaLivingStreets.org.