Women in the Nineteenth-Century Bicycle Industry
Whether in historical monographs or cycling blogs, the most common image of a nineteenth-century wheelwoman is a middle-class or wealthy woman, perhaps riding through a city park or countryside, enjoying the empowering pleasures of her new sport. While this image reflects many women cyclists of this era, assuming this represents the sport as a whole significantly limits our understanding of women’s cycling. Wheelwomen of the 1890s were not merely passive consumers of this increasingly popular sport. Women bought bicycles and rode them. Women also designed, built, fixed and sold bicycles. Wheelwomen at Work showcases American women’s multifaceted involvement in the bicycle industry of the 1890s. Wheelwomen played central roles as producers, not only consumers, even though men held leadership positions in bicycle companies. Wheelwomen at Work organizes women’s involvement in the bicycle industry into four categories: inventors, saleswomen, mechanics and factory workers.
A bicycle history as only a corporate history loses many of its most creative innovators. This is especially true for women, who generally had less access to the corporate world due to the rampant inequalities of nineteenth-century life. Cassie Jorgensen’s experience building a women's-specific bicycle provides a striking illustration of how women’s work often took place outside of the borders of nationally known bicycle corporations and on the local level. In these periphery spaces of industry, women could tinker, develop new products, and build businesses. Wheelwomen used their daily experiences as cyclists as the inspiration and authority to actively shape the bicycle industry to meet their needs, achieving successes understood on their own terms. Women designed and built bicycle accessories and clothing, while others developed frames and components. Women such as Florence Lewis, inventor of the bicycle baby carriage, invented products to solve problems they experienced as cyclists. Some women were even able to patent their inventions, such as Effie Battenberg’s cycling umbrella and Clarissa Ellen Dockham’s bicycle skirt.
On a busy day in peak riding season, it was common to find bicycle shops full of women customers shopping for the latest gear for their commute, club ride or bicycling vacation. Often these costumers were not the only women in the store. Women were also a visible part of the retail end of the bicycling industry, filling a variety of roles in neighborhood bike shops. Some women owned a bicycle store, like Minnie Brockway of Milwaukee. Even more women worked in shops assisting customers, keeping track of the books, maintaining relationships with suppliers and even working as mechanics, like Mrs. A.E. Smith in New York City. It is difficult to know exactly how many women worked in bicycle shops. Women’s retail work in the bicycle industry left a very small paper trail. Some shopowners never recorded their employees, while other records indicate women worked at the shop but do not to describe their specific responsibilities. Often shop owners sold bicycles along with other goods, such as in sporting goods stores, hardware stores or just general stores, making women employees even harder to track. Luckily, we can find evidence of some women’s work in bicycle shops due to newspaper coverage celebrating their talents. A columnist in Recreation, a sports periodical, even joked how “Twenty years ago girls read magazines and did needlework. Now they study road maps and learn to use a monkey wrench.”
Many bicycle corporations also hired women as sales agents and instructors to promote their brand. Managers of bicycle corporations recognized that women’s recommendations had far reaching effects on their sales. A well-versed cyclist could make or break the reputation of a bicycle shop, brand, model or accessory. Other bicycle companies hired women to visit small towns and host promotional events, including amateur races, expositions and cycling demonstrations. Particularly successful agents, such as Mrs. Harry Kilpatrick of New York City, often created a rouse to get a potential customer's attention. She would then offer her perfected, seemingly unbiased pitch of her employer's bicycle brand. The least documented type of bicycle agent were women paid to infiltrate bicycling clubs and tactfully promote a specific brand to their fellow members. These women worked on a secret commission without other members’ knowledge. Reporters could only speculate how many agents existed in a given club, although they acknowledged that some clubs seemed to be brimming with potential agents. Along with agents, many bicycle companies sponsored bicycling schools to expand their client base. Many women found bicycling schools a more welcoming and safe place to learn to ride compared city streets and public parks. By the 1880s, female students increasingly told bicycling schools that they preferred a fellow woman as an instructor. Bicycling companies across the country responded to their students’ requests and hired women cyclists to teach both co-ed and women's only classes. By the late 1890s, cities such as Chicago, Boston, New York and St. Louis boasted riding schools with female instructors.
Women also made up significant numbers of the bicycling industry workforce, particularly in factories. Women completed difficult tasks for low wages, often in dangerous conditions without the benefits of union membership. Women built taken for granted components and accessories, such as tires, tubes, saddles, pedals, ball bearings, lamps and screws. Women were also the invisible workers behind the diverse and profitable business of cycling-specific clothing. A wide array of factories fell under the bicycle industry umbrella. Women worked for large factories employing thousands of workers, neighborhood workshops with a few dozen employees, and small operations with only a few workers on staff. Acknowledging women’s involvement as factory workers sheds a new light on simplistic, consumer-centered frameworks of bicycling. It shows us a different side of the industry which we too easily assume was always an empowering experience for women.
It would be disingenuous to imply that the bicycling industry was anything other than a boy’s club. Men ran companies and some even amassed large fortunes in the bicycling industry. Men owned most bicycle shops and filled the vast majority of supervisory positions in factories. Women rarely held such positions. But that does not mean that women were only connected to the bicycle industry as consumers. Women helped shape this new industry, and bicycle culture overall, as inventors, factory workers, saleswomen and mechanics with products they designed, built and shared.
Image sources: "Women Repairing Bicycle, c. 1895." Montana State University Historical Photographs Collection.
Advertisement. Gormully & Jeffrey Mfg. Co. "The Wheel and Cycling Trade Review." Vol. X, No. 1, August 26, 1892, pg. 14. Google Books.,
Monarch Cycling Advertisement, "Bicycling." Recreation Vol. VI, no. 4. April, 1897, pg. 298. Google Books.