After a long period of relative neglect, the bicycle has been enjoying a revival lately. But recent tributes invariably overlook the bike's most significant contribution to the society in which we live: it gave the American woman a second leg.
Before the 1890s, by which time bicycling—or "wheeling"—had become practical and popular, the typical, morally upright American woman was a uniped. No professor of comparative anatomy would actually admit this in print, but it was nevertheless a fact of life in America, as well as in most other Western countries. All you had to do to confirm it was observe the physical conduct of the sexes. The pre-1890s man flaunted his two-leggedness by wearing tight-fitting trousers, frequently crossing his legs while seated, and walking with long strides as if to emphasize how far he could spread his two separate and distinct appendages. When he mounted a horse, he casually threw one leg across the animal's back and rode astride his mount.
In sharp contrast, the normal woman was forced to sit bolt upright in her floor-length skirt with her feet together (strangely, like the male of the species, she possessed two feet rather than a single foot, as might have been expected). When she walked, her gait was mincing, like that of a trained seal, and when she rode a horse it was side-saddle, in a manner that not only diminished her security and comfort, but practically wore holes in the poor creature's back.
There were a few exceptions, of course. It was rumored that in Paris some women of the stage had two legs and actually displayed their bipedality before delighted male audiences. Men jammed theaters and cafes night after night to gawk at these anatomical marvels.
Less worldly Americans simply preferred not to admit that women possessed two "limbs," as they were called then. Accepting this myth was a relatively simple matter until the bicycle came along. Then a startling fact emerged. It was not—and still is not—possible for a one-legged creature to ride a bicycle. A horse, coach, streetcar, yes. But not a bicycle.
To properly manipulate the pedals, the rider must have two separate limbs. Those limbs must be clothed in a garment, bloomers, for example, that allows them to operate independently and, therefore, reveal to complete strangers the bipedality of the rider. Still worse, the limbs must work in a manner that tends to emphasize the contours of the upper thigh and the hemispheric undulations of the buttocks. Horrors! What was to be done? At first, women were simply told that bicycling was not ladylike and they could not engage in it. In Flushing, N.Y., a school board resolved that it was immoral for any young lady to ride a bicycle, and further noted that, when the lady happened to be a teacher, "the practice had a tendency to create immorality among the children of both sexes." Alarmed, Justice of the Peace William Sutton added a more specific resolution that banned women teachers from "riding to and from the school room."
But the new sport was growing, and the young men yearned for company. In desperation, women tried everything, from riding in their traditional full skirts to donning hideous, baggy Zouave trousers or special split skirts. In February of 1895 Mrs. Frank Sittig announced an exhibition of her new duplex bicycle skirt. The models were to be Eva A. McKean, the talented young elocutionist, and Vietta Huyler, the well-known amateur actress. On the great day the elocutionist and the actress pedaled decorously around the floor of a rink in Brooklyn, wearing a combination of skirt and trousers later adjudged by The New York Times to be "an ideal suit for cycling, to which even the most prudish could not object."
What most people had been objecting to and what the designers of exotic bicycling costumes had been trying to supplant were bloomers, though one manufacturer of the offending garments claimed earnestly that his product was preferable to skirts "on principles of decorum, hygiene and safety." He added that the average bloomer suit was "far more modest than the average bathing or opera dress," to say nothing of the fact that bloomers had the added advantage of being fastened at the bottom, "so as to keep out the mice."
But none of this was of any use to Lilly Drew. In July of 1895 Miss Drew was pedaling along the street in Walton, N.Y., wearing her new bloomers, or "rationals," when she encountered her fiancé, Frank Hammond. The young man gasped with indignation and delivered a tirade against "the most abominable outfit a girl ever wore." In response, Lilly promptly handed him his engagement ring and pedaled away, vowing that she would remain single rather than promise to abandon her new costume.
In Mason, Ohio that same week, a young organist named Ada Coleman rode to church in flaming red rationals, marched defiantly down the center aisle and settled herself in her accustomed place. She began to play the introduction to the hymn, Who are these in bright array...? but before she even reached the point where the minister says, "Please sing," half the congregation had stalked out of the church.
And so it went. In Delaware County, N.Y., a farmer put up notices reading, ANY IDIOT OF THE NEW WOMEN SPECIES FOUND RIDING OR WALKING ON THESE PREMISES WILL BE ARRESTED. Asked to describe an "idiot of the new women species," the farmer defined her as "one of these fools in bloomer costume on a wheel." Even the presumably sophisticated actress Sarah Bernhardt objected to bicycle morality because, "it brings young people together in conditions unfavorable to strict surveillance." That sort of permissiveness was all right for the lax republic of the United Stales, she added, but she hated to "see French maidens subjected to similar influences."
French authorities apparently were determined to wipe out these insidious influences. Paris police were rumored to have arrested women in bicycling apparel who were not actually engaged in wheeling. The basic assumption seems to have been that two-leggedness while moving was not as untoward as two-leggedness while standing still, sitting or lying down.
It was The New York Times that finally turned out to be sophisticated, or at least resigned. With all that bicycling and "brazenness of bloomers" going on, the paper in 1895 predicted, "It is quite within the possibilities that the twentieth century may usher in a race of untrousered men and avowedly two-legged women."
The Times was correct, at least on one count.