victorian bicycling
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VICTORIANA - Enjoy articles relating to the Victorian Era. A regular column in each issue of The Tea House Times. Written by Patrice LePera - Authority, Victorian Era, Historical Writing -

April 2012 Posts


Blog Entry

Bicycling - The Emancipation of Women by Patrice LePera

posted by Tea Course Admin, Group AdministratorMonday, April 30th 2012 @ 7:25 PM

How did an 1816 volcanic eruption affect the emancipation of women?  Tambora created clouds of ash, reducing sunlight, causing crop failure, cold climate, and the death of thousands of horses.  Result:  The invention of the bicycle.  The first try was the velocipede… no pedals.  By 1850-60, many novel bicycles were invented, with pedals, 4-wheels, 3-wheels, and the ‘big-wheel’:  The “penny-farthing” bicycle, was known as the “ordinary” bicycle, the bigger the wheel, the faster the bike, even faster than a horse.  You didn’t have to feed it, or clean out the stable!  Anyone could afford one.   Since they were invented and built by cart-makers, most of them had wooden, wire-hoop wheels and not only weighed a lot, but were known as “bone-shakers”  (remember, there were no roads, cattle were still driven through London to market.) 


Women, in particular, longed for the freedom an inexpensive bicycle would provide. The two photos at right illustrate the problem:  A woman was encumbered by a corset, to provide a fashionable 18” waist, so she couldn’t breathe, let alone exercise;  she wore pounds of petticoats, a hoop, and since medieval England, a dress that touched the ground.


(left-see print edition) Here is an idealized painting of a corseted continental woman, perched atop the penny-farthing bicycle, long skirts held up, pacing her escort’s bike, and lighting her cigar from his!  Some trick!


Women began to realize their second-class status, not allowed into Parliament, classified as chattel, not allowed to own or inherit property, unable to breathe, restricted to the house, and forced into restricting clothing. 


If you couldn’t breathe, you couldn’t ride, nor push about 100 lbs of bicycle over rutted dirt roads. A long skirt ballooned up around your ears, or caught in the wire spokes.  Something had to change.  On the other side of restrictive laws and traditions lay an opportunity to ride faster than a horse, jobs, education, freedom; and women were ready.  By 1895, suffragette groups had formed.  Suffragette Amelia Bloomer (above) invented the “Bloomer” (inspired by Turkish ladies fashions in Istanbul) which was ridiculed by men, and rejected by society.  (above right) Queen Victoria cast a quiet vote, and purchased a Starley ‘Royal Salvo’ tricycle. 


Within 15 years, the corset and petticoats were gone.  Edwardian society saw in a vastly shorter skirt, and a slender silhouette (left) The bicycle itself had changed, “lowering the bar” meant women could ride in skirts short enough not to tangle in the wheels.  The suffragettes had emerged victorious, gaining the right to own property, fill jobs, and by 1915, women were desperately needed in the workforce to replace men occupied with war. (right)  A new life for women, thanks to a volcano, and a bicycle.


©2011 by Patrice LePera ~ Authority, Victorian Era, Historical Writing ~
Patrice can create a personalized silhouette using your photo.  She also offers cards and other art.  See website.



From the March/April 2012 issue of The Tea House Times.  To view the most recent issue, please register / log-in at

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