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Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (with a Few Flat Tires Along the Way)by Sue Macy
“Many a girl has come to her ruin through a spin on a country road.” – Charlotte Smith, Brooklyn Eagle, August 20, 1896
It was June 29, 1896, and Charlotte Smith was beside herself with concern for the young women of the United States. Smith, the 55-year-old daughter of Irish immigrants, had spent the last decade and a half fighting for the rights of female workers. But now all of her worries about their health and well-being were focused on one wildly popular mechanical object: the bicycle.
“Bicycling by young women has helped to swell the ranks of reckless girls who finally drift into the standing army of outcast women of the United States,” wrote Smith in a resolution issued by her group, the Women’s Rescue League. “The bicycle is the devil’s advance agent morally and physically in thousands of instances.” Smith’s resolution called for “all true women and clergymen” to join with her in denouncing the bicycle craze among women as “indecent and vulgar.” She set her sights on New York City as the laboratory for her reform efforts, opening a branch of her Washington-based organization there with the goal of ultimately limiting the use of the bicycle by women.
Smith blamed the bicycle for the downfall of women’s health, morals, and religious devotion. Her accusations brought a swift and impassioned response. The Reverend Dr. A. Stewart Walsh, a respected clergyman in New York City and a cyclist himself, wrote a letter to the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle declaring. “I have associated with thousands of riders...and I have not seen among them . . . anything that could begin to approach the outrageous and scandalous indecency of the resolutions of the alleged rescue league.”
Ellen B. Parkhurst, wife of another New York minister, celebrated the advantages of bicycle riding in Washington’s Evening Times. “Of course I do not believe that bicycling is immoral,” she said. “A girl who rides a wheel is lifted out of herself and her surroundings. She is made to breathe purer air, see fresher and more beautiful scenes, and get an amount of exercise she would not otherwise get. All this is highly beneficial.”
In fact, the impact of the bicycle on the health and welfare of its riders was the subject of a great deal of discussion in the 1890s. At first, the popularity of the safety drew mostly praise as its use seemed to usher in a new era of robust living. Medical literature linked cycling to cures for everything from asthma and diabetes to heart disease and varicose veins, while one study credited the decreasing death rate from consumption (tuberculosis) among women in Massachusetts to their increasing use of the bicycle. Cigar sales took a hit — one industry estimate suggested people were buying as many as one million fewer cigars per day — because cyclists were too busy exercising to indulge in the smoking habit. And in Chicago, bicycling evidently caused a drop in the use of the painkiller morphine. “The morphine takers have discovered that a long spin in the fresh air on a cycle induces sweet sleep better than their favorite drug,” reported the British Medical Journal in November 1895.
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