New Yorkers wonder: Is cycling safe for ladies?

The new pastime of bicycle riding exploded in popularity with genteel New Yorkers in the 1880s and 1890s (like these Riverside Park riders below).

“Wheelman” clubs popped up in different neighborhoods, and riders took to city streets—especially the new lanes built just for cycling, like the one from Prospect Park to Coney Island along Ocean Parkway.

Still, a debate raged: Is the fad too dangerous for women? Finally, in 1893, a newspaper consulted the experts and got an answer: It’s safe.

“The use of bicycles by the weaker sex has been sufficiently long and widespread to make it possible to deduce conclusions from experience and the evident multiplication of women riders seemed to indicate that the matter had been decisively settled in the affirmative,” announced The New York Times.

One doctor thought it was good for “nervous affections.” Another said riding was “thorough exercise of muscles without undue strain.”

A third made the point that it offered a better workout that most women got at the time: operating a sewing machine.

Finally, according to one expert at Woman’s Hospital, a prestigious institution then located at Lexington Avenue and 37th Street: “[cycling] was better, as a rule, then to ride a horse, which is too violent for many women, and much superior to carriage riding, which, indeed, could hardly be called exercise at all.”

[illustration at left: from New York’s The Ladies’ Standard magazine, 1897, courtesy of the NYPL digital collection]

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8 Responses to “New Yorkers wonder: Is cycling safe for ladies?”

  1. Bob_in_MA Says:

    Some of the change in attitudes was due to changes in technology and infrastructure in the period 1890-1900. Bikes became much easier (and safer) to ride when the chain drives came in. At the same time, cities were starting to pave streets with macadam.

    One technology that was popular around 1900 was the chainless drive bicycle. These still exist, there’s a geared drive shaft. They cost more (then and now) but probably made it a lot easier to keep your ankle-length skirt clean.

    Bicycles were somewhat expensive (relatively.) A good chainless bike could cost $75-100. This was at a time a years tuition at an Ivy League college was less than $200 and most people earned $400-1,000/year.

  2. Bob_in_MA Says:

    Sorry that sounded so pedantic. 😉

    I enjoy reading your blog a great deal, thank you.

  3. wildnewyork Says:

    Not pedantic at all–it helps give a sense that bike riding pre-1900 wasn’t necessarily as easy as it is now. Considering the skirts women wore back then, I’m amazed they were able to ride comfortably.

  4. Ricky Says:

    Wild, I think Bob was making a joke…

  5. Robert Wilhelm Says:

    In spite of the cost, bicycles were still cheaper than horses. They gave everyone new mobility, especially women.

  6. Bob_in_MA Says:

    Robert,

    My impression is that they were used mostly for recreation. Mobility wasn’t much of a problem then in urban areas, even suburban ones. The public transportation system was truly phenomenal.

    You might not see it as much different in NY, but in medium/small cities there is no comparison. The little city I live in (pop 29,000) had several street car lines and they connected with towns in every direction.

  7. Robert Wilhelm Says:

    Maybe freedom is a better word than mobility. The bicycle was a symbol of the “New Woman.”

  8. Bob_in_MA Says:

    By coincidence, this morning I came across an amusing account (loosely fictional story, ca. 1900) of a young man on a chainless bike racing a trolley. From the description of the place, I think this would have been on a good, but probably unpaved road.

    He’s keeping up, but just barely. And then these college girls bribe the motorman to speed up and leave him behind.

    If he had the somewhat more efficient chain drive, maybe he would have won the day. 😉

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