Title: Bikes and Bloomers – Victorian Women Inventors and Their Extraordinary Cycle Wear
Author: Kat Jungnickel
Publisher: Goldsmiths Press (UK)
Order: Goldsmiths (UK) | MIT (US)
What it is: Women cycle wear inventors and their valuable contributions to cycling’s past
Strengths: While barriers are at the heart of the story being told by Jungnickel, the many ways in which Victorian society held women back, the book is a celebration of inventiveness, the ingenious solutions women came up with to push the barriers placed in their path
Weaknesses: Some will run away from academic texts, no matter how accessible they are
The history of cycling is not just about stories of brave men and bicycles, women have long been active and enthusiastic velocipedists, in spite of the many barriers at every turn.
~ Kat Jungnickel,
Bikes and Bloomers
In the winter of early 1894 London’s Queen’s Hall, Langham Place, hosted a gathering of the Lady Cyclists Association, for a concert followed by a ball. All of London’s cycling world was there, the press reports claim, it was a proper event on the social calendar. This was early in the rise of the safety cycle and women were taking to the new diamond-framed bikes in, if not large numbers, then certainly impressive ones. And to do so they were overcoming the challenge of how society expected them to dress. A feature of the ball was a magic lantern show, with images of noted female cyclists of the day, and their solutions to the dress problem, projected onto surrounding walls. Among the women celebrated so was Mlle de Saint-Sauveur, the first woman to set an Hour record, having ridden 26.012 kilometres without pacers in Paris’s Buffalo vélodrome the previous July.
We know very little about De Saint-Sauveur: she exists for us today without a first name and what she did before and after her entry into cycling history is largely unknown to us. But we do know that she existed, she left a lasting mark on the sport, one that I hope will get more attention in the years to come. So many other women who made a mark on cycling in those days, well like the projections in that magic lantern show, they’re gone and forgotten. Kat Jungnickel’s Bikes and Bloomers – Victorian Women Inventors and Their Extraordinary Cycle Wear dives into the archives and brings some of them back out into the light. And it does this by looking at the clothes they chose to wear. Here’s Jungnickel:
“What can we learn from cycle wear? Quite a lot, it turns out. Much like the bicycle, cycle wear mediates relationships between the body, other technologies, public space and society. It enables and also constrains mobility. Then, as now, over a century later, what an individual wears to move and the debate that surrounds it tells us a great deal about their rights as a citizen and place in society. In this case, Victorian cycle wear differed greatly for men and women, as did society’s response to the sight of cycling women. And respond they did. The sheer volume and vitriolic nature of verbal and physical abuse directed at women on bicycles and dressed in cycle wear is illustrative of the threat many felt they posed to accepted conventions of the time.”
Even if you’ve got only passing familiarity with the early history of women’s cycling – the early history of cycling in general – you’ll know that it is often claimed that the bike drove social change, that it emancipated women and revolutionised the way they dressed. Even allowing for a little – or a lot of – hyperbole (cycling’s evangelists do so like to boast about the humble bicycle), there is another way of looking at what actually happened. In The Bicycle – Towards a Global History Paul Smethurst makes the point that innovative technologies such as the bicycle should be considered products of socio-historical conditions, rather than as sudden inventions driving social change:
“The bicycle industry could not have succeeded to the extent that it did without the contribution of venture capitalists or the modern factories that assembled mass produced components from multiple sources, and the specialised skills of engineers and workers on production lines. The system of production also relied on the development of particular materials including high-grade steel for wheels, frames, chains and ball bearings, and rubber for tyres. Beyond the factory gate, commercial success would then depend on promotion and marketing by distributors and advertisers, as well as sponsorship and endorsement by patrons and celebrities. It is not often realised that all of the above factors in the development of the modern bicycle arrived within a brief span (1870-1890), and coincided with the rise of modernity in the West.”
Jungnickel adopts a similar approach in Bikes and Bloomers, a book about innovation and engineering that looks at the role played by the bicycle in the liberation of women in late nineteenth century Britain, using clothing as the hook to hang the story off.
Individual inventiveness is at the heart of the story being told by Jungnickel – the main body of the book looks at five particular pieces of clothing and the women who created them – but Jungnickel also takes time to consider the less obvious pieces of the jigsaw, such as the popularity of sewing machines in the 1890s (even as sewing machine manufacturers like James Starley switched to making bicycles), the role of photography, the politics of pockets, or the importance of changes made to the patent system in the 1880s. This latter issue matters a great deal. First, patents offer Jungnickel a window through time, but more importantly the changes in the patent system played a major role in the rising popularity of cycling in Great Britain in the closing decades of the nineteenth century.
Before the 1880s, British patents cost £25 on application, with another £50 to be paid before the end of the third year and a further £100 due by the end of the seventh. This gave the patentee protection for fourteen years. In the 1880s, the £25 application fee was cut to just £4. This widened substantially the pool from which inventors were drawn and contributed to a patent boom in the 1890s that Jungnickel compares to the dotcom boom that followed a century later:
“Patent fever captured the collective social imagination, seducing potential inventors with fantasies of previously unobtainable economic transformation and social mobility.”
Following up a train of thought from an earlier review, in one of the curiously few references to cycling during the 1890s in the Sherlock Holmes canon, Arthur Conan Doyle has one of the characters in the story The Five Orange Pips (1891) obtain her wealth through a patent taken out by her father:
“My father had a small factory at Coventry, which he enlarged at the time of the invention of bicycling. He was a patentee of the Openshaw unbreakable tire, and his business met with such success that he was able to sell it and to retire upon a handsome competence.”
This idea that patents could make you rich was pervasive in the 1890s, with Jungnickel offering reports from a London periodical, The Church Weekly, that claimed a patented glass lemon squeezer had generated £10,000, or that £16,000 had been made from the patent of a child’s toy, or a patented wooden shoe peg had earned £100,000.
The patent boom is evident in the numbers reported by the Comptroller General of Patents, Designs and Trade Marks. At the start of the 1880s, before the reduction in application fees, about 6,000 patents were applied for. A decade later, after the changes, 1890 saw more than 21,000 applications. That rose to 25,000 in 1893 through 1895 and then shot up to 30,000 in 1896 and 1897, with the Comptroller of Patents crediting the cycling boom for the rise. The numbers slipped back to 27,000 in 1898 and then 25,000 the following year as the air went out of the bicycle boom.
Throughout this period, women made up just over two per cent of patentees, their inventions including dress (many relating to cycling), cycles and mechanical engineering devices. If you’ve got even only passing familiarity with the early history of women’s cycling you’ll probably think that the dress problem had been answered by bloomers – or knickerbockers if you prefer – and be wondering why women needed to continue to be inventive about dress when it came to cycling. Guess what? It’s not that simple.
Bloomers were a radical option, they made a political statement, you were a supporter of Rational Dress and all that was associated with that. Not everyone wanted to wear their politics on their sleeve, or (in this case) their legs. So some accepted the cycle industry’s solution of the step-through frame (which is only today, a dozen decades on, losing its gendered appellation of a woman’s bike, with bike-hire schemes making it a frame for all) and this allowed them, in theory at least, to stick with skirts. Others sought a middle ground and fashioned garments that could allow them to cycle safely and comfortably but stop them from looking like ‘a cyclist’ when off the bike:
“These unique designs specifically responded to the ‘dress problem’ by enabling wearers to secretly switch ordinary clothing into cycle wear, and back again when required. Because the aim was to remain undetected, ingenious engineering is deliberately hidden in the hems and seams.”
An example for you: a convertible cycling skirt patented by Alice Bygrave in the UK in 1895, and taken up and promoted by a manufacturer:
As well as telling the story of the designs, Jungnickel unpicks their stitching to try and get a look at the women who came up with them. In the cases of Alice Bygrave, Henrietta Müller, or the sisters Mary and Sarah Pease, such genealogical research was quite straightforward. Mary Ward, however, remained stubbornly invisible, while only a glimpse of Julia Gill was possible. Like De Saint-Sauveur, these last two are women who made a mark on cycling but left behind little information about themselves.
The Pease sisters, they were born in 1872 (Sarah) and 1873 (Mary). The 1881 census shows them living on the family farm, some two hundred acres managed by their widowed mother and worked by three men and two boys. An older sister and a younger brother completed the family, which must have been reasonably wealthy, employing as it did a governess and four servants. Data from the following two censuses (1891 and 1901) adds additional insight but doesn’t shed much light on the lives of the women.
Henrietta Müller, on the other hand, she let a lot of light shine on her life, particularly by means of the Women’s Herald paper she founded in 1888 and edited through to 1893. Born in Chile to a German father and a mother of English descent, her early life was somewhat peripatetic, the family moving from Chile to Boston to London, back to Chile, and then back to London. Aged twenty-seven in 1873 she started a three year degree course in Moral Sciences at Girton College, Cambridge:
“Women’s equal access to education was impeded by the same fears that surrounded women’s cycling: the concern that it could potentially distract or even worse impair a girl’s ability to perform her primary moral duty, that of securing a husband and raising a family. Fears of education damaging a woman’s health were debated at length. Many doctors and psychiatrists believed that women’s desire for independence could lead to sickness, loss of fertility and even death.”
This world building by Jungnickel, it’s more than adding colour to the story, crafting a backstory for her inventors, it’s actually a large part of the story: the social order was being challenged on multiple fronts. Some embraced change, many resisted it. Even those who helped break down the barriers themselves imposed barriers, such as in education, where “women student’s lives were more strictly monitored than those of their male peers.” Here’s Jungnickel, quoting from Rita McWillians-Tulberg’s Women at Cambridge:
“The lives of the women students were ordered by innumerable small rules of behaviour, and it is only possible to understand how the students bore with these constraints by considering the narrow lives they would have had to live had they stayed home.”
This thinking follows through to the camouflaged clothing solutions Jungnickel focuses on in Bikes and Bloomers: with their Heath Robinson-esque pulleys and strings, they may seem to some like overcomplicated solutions, but they’re not if you grasp the problems they were responding to.
Bikes and Bloomers, then, is about a lot more than bikes and bloomers. Like the clothing written about, the title hides a lot. This is a book that questions the manner in which we look at the history of cycling in these years. The socio-historical conditions matter and when it comes to the way women’s cycling developed, they matter a lot, for in these early years the history of men’s cycling and the history of women’s cycling differ greatly. With Bikes and Bloomers Jungnickel challenges us to step back and reconsider how we tell the story of the bicycle in the Victorian era, challenges us to step back and consider the role played by women who, like images in a magic lantern show, are now gone from our vision of the past. These are women whose role in popularising cycling by offering inventive solutions to the dress problem should not be ignored, no matter how hidden it has been.