Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Bicycling for Ladies: An 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

“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.”

Bicycling for Ladies: An 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

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.

Art from Bicycling for Ladies, 1896. Available as a print.

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.

Art from Bicycling for Ladies, 1896. Available as a print.

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.

Art from Bicycling for Ladies, 1896. Available as a print.

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.

Art from Bicycling for Ladies, 1896. Available as a print.

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.

Art from Bicycling for Ladies, 1896. Available as a print.

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.

Cover of Bicycling for Ladies, 1896. Available as a print.

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.

BP

Standing on the Shoulders of Solitude: Newton, the Plague, and How Quarantine Fomented the Greatest Leap in Science

“Truth is the offspring of silence and meditation.”

Standing on the Shoulders of Solitude: Newton, the Plague, and How Quarantine Fomented the Greatest Leap in Science

In the 1650s, the penumbra of plague slowly began eclipsing Europe. Italy fell first, soon Spain, then Germany, then Holland. From across the slender cell wall of the Channel, England watched and trembled, then cautiously relaxed — for about a decade, some divine will seemed to be shielding the country. But the world was already worshipping at the altar of commerce and the forces of globalization had already been set into motion — with England’s economy relying heavily on trade, its ports bustled with ships carrying silk and tea and sugar from all discovered frontiers of the globe. Rats boarded the ships, fleas boarded the rats, bacteria — an almost-kingdom of unicellular organisms yet to be coronated, for the cell itself was yet to be discovered — boarded the fleas, which took to human flesh as soon as they debarked.

The Ghost of a Flea by William Blake (Tate Britain)

And so, on Christmas Day 1664, a single plague death was reported in London. Another came in February, then another. “Great fears of sickness here in the City,” the legendary diarist Samuel Pepys was writing by April. “God preserve us all.”

God was no match for the absence of a basic scientific understanding of biology and epidemiology. The deaths were swift, gruesome, and, soon, so voluminous that services ceased being held. Over the course of the summer, the death toll swelled tenfold, from hundreds to thousands per week. The infected were ordered not to leave their homes. Many were boarded in and left to die in isolation, an enormous cross painted on the outside of each plagued house. Plays, spectator blood sports, and other crowd gatherings were banned. Street vendors were banned from selling their wares, newsboys ceased crying and retreated indoors. An awful, alien silence came to blanket this capital of din. The universities closed.

When Cambridge sent its students home, a young man obsessed with mathematics, motion, and light, whose illiterate father had died three months before his birth, who worshipped a “God of order and not of confusion,” and who had begun his university studies by performing servants’ work for wealthier students in exchange for tuition, bundled his prized books and headed back to his mother’s farm.

There, in solitude and isolation, as the plague continued its deadly sweep, Isaac Newton (December 25, 1642–March 19, 1727) dreamt up the fulcrum that would dislodge humanity from the Dark Ages; there, the apple — real or apocryphal — fell, and in its shadow rose the revolutionary idea of gravity, which the young man envisioned as a force “extending to the orb of the Moon” all the way from the Earth, without “cutoff or boundary.” It was there, too, that he set out to compute that force, “requisite to keep the Moon in her Orb with the force of gravity at the surface of the earth”; in the act of computing it, as a necessity of that act, he invented calculus.

isaacnewton
Isaac Newton

In his excellent Isaac Newton (public library) — a gold standard of biography and of storytelling bridging the scientific with the poetic, which also gave us the story behind the famous “standing on the shoulders of giants” metaphor — James Gleick writes of the young Newton’s plague-driven return home:

He built bookshelves and made a small study for himself. He opened the nearly blank thousand-page commonplace book he had inherited from his stepfather and named it his Waste Book. He began filling it with reading notes. These mutated seamlessly into original research. He set himself problems; considered them obsessively; calculated answers, and asked new questions. He pushed past the frontier of knowledge (though he did not know this). The plague year was his transfiguration. Solitary and almost incommunicado, he became the world’s paramount mathematician.

Newton at work by William Blake (1795-1805)
Newton by William Blake (Tate Britain)

From the fortunate platform of a long life — he lived to eighty-four, more than double the era’s life expectancy, his casket shouldered by dukes and earls — Newton would look back on his most intellectually fertile period of the plague years with the recognition that “truth is the offspring of silence and meditation.”

Complement this fragment of Gleick’s indispensable Isaac Newton with Tocqueville on stillness as a form of action and the trailblazing 18th-century French mathematician Émilie du Châtelet, who popularized Newton’s science, on the nature of genius, then revisit Gleick’s splendid reading of and reflection on Elizabeth Bishop’s poem about the nature of knowledge.

BP

Virginia Woolf on Finding Beauty in the Uncertainty of Time, Space, and Being

Calibration and consolation for those moments when it seems impossible that we should ever again recompose the world’s broken fragments into a harmonious whole.

Virginia Woolf on Finding Beauty in the Uncertainty of Time, Space, and Being

“How should we like it were stars to burn with a passion for us we could not return?” asked W.H. Auden in one of the greatest poems ever written — a subtle, playful, poignant meditation on what it takes to go on living — to go on making poems and symphonies and equations, to go on loving — when faced with something so much vaster than we are, so beyond our control and so rife with uncertainty, be it the chance-governed universe enfolding us or the sovereign cosmos of another heart.

A generation before him, Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) — another subtle illuminator of the human spirit in its cosmic dimensions — shone a sidewise gleam on the blunt edge of that eternal question of how to live with, and perhaps even find beauty, in the elemental uncertainty of time, space, and being — a question suddenly sharpened at times of especial uncertainty.

Art by Nina Cosford from the illustrated biography of Virginia Woolf

In one of the most ravishing passages from her 1927 masterwork To the Lighthouse (public library | free ebook) — the most autobiographical of her novels — Woolf writes:

What after all is one night? A short space, especially when the darkness dims so soon, and so soon a bird sings, a cock crows, or a faint green quickens, like a turning leaf, in the hollows of the wave. Night, however, succeeds to night. The winter holds a pack of them in store and deals them equally, evenly, with indefatigable fingers. They lengthen; they darken. Some of them hold aloft clear planets, plates of brightness. The autumn trees, ravaged as they are, take on the flesh of tattered flags kindling in the doom of cool cathedral caves where gold letters on marble pages describe death in battle and how bones bleach and burn far away in Indian sands. The autumn trees gleam in the yellow moonlight, in the light of harvest moons, the light which mellows the energy of labour, and smooths the stubble, and brings the wave lapping blue to the shore.

Art by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

In the breaking waves, Woolf finds a staggering emblem of our struggle to hold the larger wholeness in view, in faith, when our worlds come momentarily disworlded:

It seems impossible that their calm should ever return or that we should ever compose from their fragments a perfect whole or read in the littered pieces the clear words of truth.

Radiating from Woolf’s gorgeous words is the reminder that all states of mind, all territories of feeling, even those that feel most unsurvivable — perhaps especially those that feel most unsurvivable — are merely moments in time, and yet they are not islanded in the river of being but belong with the rest of the current, the current that springs from the selfsame source as our capacity for beauty, for transcendence, for experiencing ourselves as “the thing itself”:

The nights now are full of wind and destruction; the trees plunge and bend and their leaves fly helter skelter until the lawn is plastered with them and they lie packed in gutters and choke rain pipes and scatter damp paths. Also the sea tosses itself and breaks itself, and should any sleeper fancying that he might find on the beach an answer to his doubts, a sharer of his solitude, throw off his bedclothes and go down by himself to walk on the sand, no image with semblance of serving and divine promptitude comes readily to hand bringing the night to order and making the world reflect the compass of the soul. The hand dwindles in his hand; the voice bellows in his ear. Almost it would appear that it is useless in such confusion to ask the night those questions as to what, and why, and wherefore, which tempt the sleeper from his bed to seek an answer.

Art by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print)

If you have survived your life so far without reading To the Lighthouse, and suddenly find yourself with new orders of time, space, and being on your hands, this might be the moment to savor Woolf’s timeless treasure — the kind of book that leaves you feeling nothing less than reborn. Complement this particular fragment with an antidote to helplessness and disorientation from the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm, then revisit Woolf on being ill, why we read, what it means to be an artist, the relationship between loneliness and creativity, and her transcendent account of a total solar eclipse.

BP

Stillness as a Form of Action: Tocqueville on Cataclysm as an Antidote to Cultural Complacency and a Catalyst for Growth

“There are periods during which human society seems to rest… This pause is, indeed, only apparent, for time does not stop its course for nations any more than for [individuals]; they are all advancing every day towards a goal with which they are unacquainted.”

Stillness as a Form of Action: Tocqueville on Cataclysm as an Antidote to Cultural Complacency and a Catalyst for Growth

Even when nothing is happening, something is happening. This is a difficult fact for the human animal to fathom — especially for us modern sapiens, who so ardently worship at the altar of productivity and so readily mistake busyness for effectiveness, for propulsion toward progress. Silence is a form of speech, Susan Sontag wrote, “and an element in a dialogue.” Stillness is a form of action and an element in advancement, in evolution, in all forward motion.

There are certain moments, as when winter cusps into spring, when nature itself reminds us of this slippery elemental fact: Buds begin to spine the skeletal silhouettes of trees, withholding leaf and blossom until it is right, until it is safe to spill new life into the chilly air; birds, whose dinosaur bodies have spent all winter preparing to mate, perch silent on the bud-spined branches, all longing and unsung song.

Waiting in the Almost by Maria Popova. Available as a print.

There are certain moments in culture, too, when we must especially remember, in order to stay sane, this slippery elemental fact.

Those moments and their neglected significance are what Alexis de Tocqueville (July 29, 1805–April 16, 1859) explores in a brief, intensely insightful passage from his 1835 classic Democracy in America (public library).

Since Tocqueville belongs to the long stretch of epochs predating Ursula K. Le Guin’s brilliant unsexing of the universal pronoun, I have taken the liberty (a liberty I very rarely take with historical texts, for it is often ahistorical to take it, but one that feels right in this case) of rehumanizing his men as individuals and people. He writes:

At certain periods a nation may be oppressed by such insupportable evils as to conceive the design of effecting a total change in its political constitution; at other times… the existence of society itself is endangered. Such are the times of great revolutions… But between these epochs of misery and confusion there are periods during which human society seems to rest and mankind to take breath. This pause is, indeed, only apparent, for time does not stop its course for nations any more than for [individuals]; they are all advancing every day towards a goal with which they are unacquainted.

In an analogy the physical fact of which would become the basis of Einstein’s epoch-making development of relativity many decades later, Tocqueville adds:

We imagine them to be stationary only when their progress escapes our observation, as [people] who are walking seem to be standing still to those who run.

Art by Cindy Derby from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

Because this transformative stillness is so imperceptible, Tocqueville observes, and because it appears after periods of upheaval, we are apt to mistake the stillness for an end point. Nearly two centuries before psychologist Daniel Gilbert quipped that “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished” in his excellent inquiry into how our present illusions hinder our future happiness, Tocqueville admonishes against this illusion of finality, as true on the scale of individuals as it is on the scale of societies, nations, and civilizations:

There are certain epochs in which the changes that take place in the social and political constitution of nations are so slow and imperceptible that [people] imagine they have reached a final state; and the human mind, believing itself to be firmly based upon sure foundations, does not extend its researches beyond a certain horizon.

The great gift of such periods is that they invite us to question our certitudes, our givens, these seemingly sure foundations that have lulled us into complacency — for it is only by being jolted out of our complacencies, cultural or personal, that we ever reach beyond the horizon, toward new territories of truth, beauty, and flourishing.

Complement with Thoreau on the long cycles of change, Hannah Arendt on small action as the fulcrum of our humanity, and a wonderful modern meditation on the art of waiting in an impatient culture, then revisit Pico Iyer on what Leonard Cohen taught him about the art of stillness and Pablo Neruda’s timeless ode to silence.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price. Privacy policy.