Them Blooming Bicycles

Jane sent us a link to a story by Laura Bien of the Ann Arbor Chronicle, Bloomers and Bicycles.  This article is part of the  Chronicle’s “In the Archives”  series.  It recollects two of the problems that the advent of the bicycle engendered in the late nineteenth century.  The first problem pertained to men and boys speeding around town on city sidewalks.   The second problem was with women’s bloomers.

A hundred years after Ann Arbor’s city government first attempted to regulate bicycles, it is still wrestling with the issue.  Laura Bien wrote her article, after Ann Arbor’s mayor suggested last month that the Downtown Development Authority take a position on bicycling on downtown sidewalks.  The thrust of her article was not to illuminate this latest dust-up over these infernal machines, but to delve into the initial reactions that people had to the introduction of the bicycle.

By the end of the nineteenth century the bicycle had taken the country by storm.  This was a honeymoon period for bicycling in America.  It is a period that lay briefly between the preceeding millenniums of horse borne transportation and America’s eventual marriage to the automobile.  It was a heady time.  Millions of Americans took up bicycling.  Powerful political organizations, like the League of American Wheelmen, or the LAW, flexed their new found political muscles and lobbied for bicycle advocacy issues.  Ann Arbor was a poster child for this political process.  In 1897 Ann Arbor voted down the first attempt to regulate bicycles.  In 1898 Ann Arbor first passed, but then later repealed an ordinance regulating bicycles.

So even then, the bicycle was not without its detractors.  At the time, automobiles were still a rarity, except on racetracks, horses only walked, so the experience of men and boys tearing around town at alarming speeds terrified people.  Ypsilanti was less sanguine about bicycles then Ann Arbor was.  Ypsi first passed and then enforced their ordnance, but it was to no avail.  Except for a few unlucky souls who got caught, most bicyclists roamed the sidewalks with impunity.

Nowadays, most law prohibits cycling on downtown sidewalks.  Bicycling on residential sidewalks is acceptable though.  We can’t have little Jack or Jill getting run over in the street.  I think back then though the situation was  little different.  First there weren’t many cars.  Second, most streets were either paved with stone or were not paved at all.  Either choice could make the smoother sidewalk much more attractive to a cyclist. 

Another problem with bicycles was that they were an agent for the emancipation of women.  A women could ride a bicycle as easily as a man.  More importantly a single woman could afford a bicycle more readily than a horse or a car.  Mobility on a bicycle is like five to one over walking, so we’re talking about real freedom of movement here.  Some people were just not comfortable with women and bicycles.  Other people were not comfortable with women bicyclists, because of their fashion for wearing bike-friendly bloomers.  

At a 1895 Detroit medical convention, Doctor I.N. Love from Saint Louis, spoke on “The Bicycle from a Medical Standpoint.”  Dr. Love loved to see women bicycle.  Love did not love bloomers, “which lessened the respect of mankind for womanhood and blemished the landscape.”  Hmm, I wonder what he would think of Spandex?

Courtesy of the Missouri History Museum:  Bicyclists of the League of American Wheelmen pose by the statue of Frank Blair (Director of the 1904 Worlds Fair), at the northeast corner of Forest Park before the second annual Saint Louis County Bicycle Tour.

2 thoughts on “Them Blooming Bicycles

  1. Hello, this is the author. Thank you for the very nice mention! I am happy you liked the piece, and I love the L. A. W. photo you have posted here. As you said, the role of the bike in the emancipation of women was quite significant, though little-known today. Really fascinating subject. Thank you again! 🙂

  2. That was a great article and the bloomer wars cracked me up (and had me thinking, “you go girls!”). (And I believe I used to occasionally email with Laura back when both of us were in a previous life, when I used to post play production info on one of our local publications.)

    These days, my only problem with sidewalk bicyclists here on the Planet Ann Arbor is when they come up behind me at a high rate of speed and say “on your left” (or whatever). Your left? My left? Which direction do I jump? I cannot process that information that fast. They need to do what the kiddos do and start ringing their bike bells a half a block back. That, I get (-;

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