Bicycling for Ladies: An Illustrated 1896 Manifesto for the Universal Splendors of the Bicycle as an Instrument of Self-Reliance, a Training Machine for Living with Uncertainty, and a Portal to Joy
“You are at all times independent. This absolute freedom of the cyclist can be known only to the initiated.”
By Maria Popova
After the first progenitor of the modern bicycle — a seat atop two in-line metal wheels without gears, chain, tires, or pedals even, to be straddled and propelled Flintstones-style with strides pushing off the ground, dubbed the “running machine” — made its debut in the early nineteenth century, novelty-enthusiastic riders struggling to balance the contraption began migrating from the carriage-rutted streets to the smoother sidewalks, bolting past startled pedestrians. The proto-bicycle was soon banned in Germany, England, and America as a public hazard. But once a culture developed around the novelty, once reason and regulation enveloped that culture, the bicycle did for the human foot what the telescope did for the eye. A new era of transit began. Horses had civilized humanity and changed our mating. The internal combustion engine was about to rein in a terrifying new form of mass transit. But with the bicycle, for the first time in the history of our species, human beings could traverse land faster than on foot, beholden to no other creature and relying only on the internal combustion of their own metabolism, propelled only by where they wanted to go and how hard they were willing to push to get there — in this glorious prosthetic stride, a two-wheel allegory for life itself. Within a century, the bicycle would come to be regarded as “the vehicle of novelists and poets.”
By the end of the nineteenth century, the precarious contraption had been perfected into something closely resembling the modern bicycle — safer and more stable, providing not only greater efficiency of transport but greater delight. Coded into this novel utility was a new vocabulary of joy. But as Bob Dylan has astutely observed of the human animal, “people have a hard time accepting anything that overwhelms them” — the bicycle needed public champions who would translate its usefulness and its charms into the common tongue and ease the popular imagination into comprehending, appreciating, and eventually setting this new wonder into self-propelled motion.
Like any technology, this novelty had unenvisioned social consequences. “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling,” Susan B. Anthony exulted in 1896 as the bicycle was emerging as an improbable yet vital tool in women’s empowerment. “I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.”
That year, a bicycle enthusiast by the name of Maria E. Ward published Bicycling for Ladies (free ebook | public library) — the most popular volume in The Common Sense of Bicycling, a series of guides to the brave new world of life on two wheels.
Despite the gendered title and the almost impossibly wonderful illustrations of badass ladies mounting, dismounting, and cruising on bicycles only a generation after women were being arrested for wearing pants in public, most of the book is devoted to extolling the universal glories of cycling — as a sport, as a form of civic agency, as an almost spiritual practice of communing with the natural world in a wholly new way.
What emerges is both a charming time-capsule — reminding us how much of what we take for granted today was once a new frontier of daring advanced by a small set of pioneers — and a timeless celebration of the bicycle as an instrument of the mind, an engine of self-reliance, and a mobile portal to delight.
Sensitive to how the human mind always first comprehends the unfamiliar through the contours of the familiar, Ward sets out to give potential cyclists a sense of what riding a bicycle actually feels like:
Getting under way for even a short cruise awheel has some of the features familiar to the yachtsman. To the skater, the motion is not unlike the rapid, swaying movement on the ice, the silence and the rush of succeeding strokes. To the horseman, the dissimilarity of the two modes of locomotion, after the settling to work has been accomplished, is very striking.
She goes on to equip the rider with the knowledge necessary for mastering this strange and wondrous new form of motion — from the basic laws of physics and mechanics by which balance is established and momentum achieved, to the anatomy and biology “enabling the cyclist to resist fatigue and avoid over-exertion.” She writes in the introduction:
The needs of the bicyclist are an intelligent comprehension of the bicycle as a machine, an appreciative knowledge of the human machine that propels it, and a realization of the fact that rider and bicycle should form one combined mechanism. For this, a knowledge of the laws that determine the limits and possibilities of both mechanisms is necessary.
But beyond the mechanics of it, Ward frames the novelty of bicycling first and foremost as a democratizing force — a fusion of autonomy and self-reliance that would open up entirely new worlds of possibility in more than physical transit:
Bicycling is a modern sport, offering infinite variety and opportunity. As an exercise, at present unparalleled, it accomplishes much with comparatively little expenditure of effort; as a relaxation, it has many desirable features; and its limitless possibilities, its future of usefulness, and the effect of its application to modern economic and social conditions, present a wide field for speculation.
She paints a haloed portrait of the bicycle as an engine of freedom and possibility, fusing autonomy and joy:
Bicycling possesses many advantages, and is within the reach of nearly all. For the athlete and the sportsman, it opens up new worlds; for the family it solves problems; for the tired and hurried worker, it has many possibilities… To the naturalist, the traveller, and the intelligent observer, cycling offers advantages which are limited only by time and opportunity… To the lover of out-door life the bicycle presents a succession of wonderful possibilities. Much has been written of canoe-trips and of the charms of cruising among our inland waters; as charming and as attractive is land travel on the wheel. Bicycling, moreover, combines the best features of many other sports with advantages peculiar to it, for instance, the cyclist must work, and there is much pleasure in watching progress made with so little effort — the work all his own, the machine but a means of locomotion — enjoying and appreciating all the beauties of the country traversed, while yet conscious of the power to hasten away as soon as the surroundings cease to interest or amuse… Unless a break-down occurs, you are at all times independent. This absolute freedom of the cyclist can be known only to the initiated.
But perhaps her subtlest, loveliest, most timeless point is that the bicycle is an existential training machine for living with uncertainty and cultivating the buoyancy of spirit necessary for facing the loss of control without psychological self-injury:
Cheerfulness is an invariable factor… for it is unusual, on a bicycle trip, that everything happens as it is expected or has been planned for.
Complement with a part-amusing and part-appalling list of don’ts for women cyclists, published the previous year, then revisit this illustrated bicycle safety manual from 1969, this fascinating 1945 short film about how a bicycle is made, and a poet’s lovely case for cycling as a cure for creative block, to which I too heartily attest.
Published April 8, 2020