Last month in her talk “From Spokes to Sprockettes: A History of Women and the Bicycle,” Professor Jennifer Dill discussed the strong overlap between women interested in bicycling and women interested in woman suffrage. Indeed, the bicycle became an important instrument for an increasing intellectual, emotional, and economic independence of many women.
Dill’s talk, and the writings of many, draw examples over a half century or more, and from across at least two continents. Particularly in an advocacy context, reflections can sometimes become idealized and a bit hazy. This picture of “law abiding women suffragists” was taken in London in 1913, for example. There’s a social history of bicycling, however, and the meaning of a woman on a bike in London in 1913 is different from a woman on a bike in Portland in 1913, and from a woman on a bike in Portland in 1895.
Think of it this way. The significance of a person using a walkman in 1990 is very different from the significance of a person with a walkman in 2010. Cycles of innovation, technology, and fashion weren’t so compressed a century ago, of course, but as we look at transitions in transportation technology circa 1900, a twenty year interval still makes a difference.
So what about here in Oregon?
We are still far from a complete story of the meanings and activities around bicycling circa 1900. Without saying anything about causation, I believe there’s an interesting and not surprising – maybe even obvious – correlation between women on bikes and the bicycle path building. Essentially this period lasts about decade, from 1895 to 1905. The limits of 1895 and 1905 are not definite, of course, but the are a good guide, and 1899 will be a convenient center point. Additionally, women did bike past 1905, but society leaders did not. At this time bicycling lost prestige and shifted from being a leading edge activity of high-status to being a lower-status activity.
Esther Pohl Lovejoy Starts to Bike about 1895
The career of Esther Pohl Lovejoy, an important Portland physician and suffrage advocate, neatly illustrates the pattern. Her experiences with bicycles are typical and encapsulate the era: She followed the fashion, biking when it was popular, and moving on when others moved on. Again, we don’t have a complete and continuous picture, but a couple of snapshots convey the arc of the narrative.
Lovejoy’s biographer, Professor Kimberly Jensen, writes:
Esther Clayson was born in 1869 in a logging camp in Seabeck, Washington Territory, to immigrant English parents. From an early age, she and her brothers worked in the family’s boarding house and hotel and, later, in their hotel and restaurant when the family moved to East Portland in the 1880s. At eighteen, Esther started work as a clerk, earning twenty dollars a month at the Lipman and Wolfe department store to help support herself and her mother and younger sisters. In 1890, inspired by early women physicians practicing in Portland and the promise of interesting and remunerative work, she began the three-year course of study at the University of Oregon Medical Department (UOMD).
She did not bike during her schooling. The school building was at NW 23rd and Lovejoy and in her account of medical school from 1890-94, “My Medical School, 1890-1894” (OHQ 75:1, March 1974), Lovejoy referred primarily to horse and buggy conveyance:
Those with supporting practices were horse-and-buggy doctors, but the younger instructors had to walk, for there were no bicycles at that time and the car-line ended at the head of Washington Street.
She didn’t directly address how she got to school, but presumably it was by walking and possibly also by streetcar. That there were “no” bicycles is not exactly true, but they were not common.
As we have seen, by mid-decade, bicycle numbers were growing, with dramatic year-over-year increases. It appears that Lovejoy joined in and had got a bicycle.
Late in her life, journalist Nan Strandborg wrote Lovejoy, and alluded to bicycling in the 1890s:
I have retold, many times, how in the early days you and the other women doctors carried on their obstetric profession riding bicycles to and from and how you used to stop for rest and coffee at the little shop that kept open nights, on your way home from ushering another little pilgrim into the world in the “‘wee small hours.’”
We should place this shortly after Lovejoy finished school and started her career, around 1895, or perhaps as late as 1897.
Women and Bikes Everywhere in 1895
Lovejoy wasn’t the only one thinking about bikes in 1895. Nationally, the bike fad had burst on the scene. In her short story published in July of that year, “The Unexpected,” Kate Chopin describes the freedom a bicycle offered to a woman. Here the freedom is not merely transportational freedom to pursue an independent career, but is also emotional and domestic freedom after an unwanted suitor leaves her.
Fifteen minutes later Dorothea had changed her house gown, had mounted her “wheel,” and was fleeing as if Death himself pursued her.
She sped along the familiar roadway, seemingly borne on by some force other than mechanical-some unwonted energy–a stubborn impulse that lighted her eyes, set her cheeks aflame, bent her supple body to one purpose–that was, swiftest flight.
She had never spoken a word after bidding him good-by; but now she seemed disposed to make confidants of the tremulous leaves, or the crawling and hopping insects, or the big sky into which she was staring.
“Never!” she whispered, “not for all his thousands! Never, never! not for millions!”
With the Chopin story there is a flurry of other publishing activity that features women on bikes. Also in 1895 suffrage advocate Frances Willard published her A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle.
In the August 1895 Cosmopolitan, Mrs. Reginald de Koven published a piece “Bicycling for Women.” It was illustrated with pictures of mounts and dismounts, of bloomer costumes and skirts of various lengths, at and some level was intended as a basic “how-to.”
In 1896, Maria E. Ward published a full-length book Bicycling for Ladies. It offered tips on costumes, mounting and dismounting, riding, hill-climbing, and chapters on “women and tools,” “tool and how to use them,” and “solving a problem.” Clearly an independence was its aim.
In 1898, Susan B. Anthony explicitly discusses this independence.
In Peter Zheutlin’s book, Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride, Zheutlin cites a passage from Anthony’s 1898 letter to the editor of Sidepath magazine, apparently amplifying some 1896 comments she made to journalist Nellie Bly.
I think it has done a great deal to emancipate women. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives her a feeling of freedom, self-reliance and independence. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm while she is on her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood…
The bicycle also teaches practical dress reform, gives women fresh air and exercize, and helps make them equal with men in work and pleasure; and anything that does that has my good word. What is better yet, the bicycle preaches the necessity for woman suffrage. When bicyclists want a bit of special legislation, such as side-paths and laws to protect them, or to compel railroads to check bicycles as baggage, the women are likely to be made to see that their petitions would be more respected by the law-makers if they had votes, and the men that they are losing a source of strength because so many riders of the machine are women. From such small practical lessons a seed is sown that may ripen into the demand for full suffrage, by which alone women can ever make and control their own conditions in society and state.
The cluster of themes around independence and suffrage is clear.
Women, Bikes and Class
We should remind ourselves, though, that bikes were expensive, and we are reading the thoughts of a particular class of women – they are educated and have access to some amount of money, whether earned as a physician or other higher-status professional or family money. These are exceptional women.
What were the experiences of more ordinary women?
Getting numbers is difficult, but the bicycle tax of 1899 permits us some pretty good guesses. There are extant records from Marion, Multnomah, and Yamhill counties. Marion and Multnomah counties had bigger numbers and I didn’t try to count them for preliminary analysis. But Yamhill county had the smallest numbers and I could count them easily.
In Yamhill County, out of a total population of 13,420 in 1900, in 1899 there were about 1085 licensed bikes. That’s something like an 8% ownership rate (few owned multiple bikes). (This is an undercount, but it’s not clear by how much; compliance the first year seemed pretty high, however.) The rates in Marion and Multnomah are higher, edging towards 10%, but the rate’s fairly consistent. Of those 1085, people with unambiguously women’s names owned 187 of them. So women owned about 17% of bikes. The rates in Marion and Multnomah counties also appear to be slightly higher.
By comparison, in Portland today, bike counts show about 30% women; in Salem it has varied between 20% and 25%. So the historic ratios don’t seem all that far off.
New bikes were not cheap. Earlier in the decade they hovered around $100, but by 1900 had dropped to between $30 and $50. Used bikes between $5 and $10. A men’s suit could be had for $10 or $15, and a year’s worth of tuition at Willamette University was $45 in 1899. The cost of a license, $1.25, was perhaps a half-day’s average wage.
This ad from Portland dealer Fred Merrill is especially interesting because it is a little ambiguous. At least to us today, it is not clear whether the urge to buy a bike for “Sarah” is being mocked or lauded. The rider doesn’t appear especially high-status – indeed, he looks more like an older country bumpkin with a more youthful wife. At least that’s the narrative it conjures to me.
In any event, biking was not cheap transportation – yet.
Between 1899 and 1902 a gigantic bicycle Trust, the American Bicycle Company, came together and crashed. At inception it united 36 different manufacturers, and gathered more each month. The market for new bicycles declined precipitously, however. Few riders needed anymore to keep up with the latest model. In 1899 the Spanish-American war siphoned off numbers of young men, the main purchasers of new “wheels,” and left the market with a temporary glut of second-hand wheels. As the Trust came apart, membership in the League of American Wheelmen also declined quickly, and leaders in society and politics turned from bicycles to automobiles. By 1902 the trust was in receivership.
Here in Oregon the decline was not so precipitous. It took a couple of years for the east coast decline to make it to Oregon. Nevertheless, the biggest bike dealer in Portland and also City Councilor, Fred Merrill, noted at the end of his life in 1936, that in 1903, prostitutes on bikes killed the fashion.
In 1903 I was re-elected for three more years. I still owned and operated my bicycle business, but from 1900 on the demand for wheels dropped month by month.
It wasn’t the coming of the automobile that did it, for the automobile was still nothing but a horseless carriage. The fad of the bike began to wane when all the fancy women from the segregated districts in the north end took to the wheel. They not only bought the smartest wheels made but they dolled up in bright cycling cloths, including the scandalous split skirts, and ran all over town, ringing their bells and with colored streamers flying from the handlebars.
When Blanche Hamilton’s girls and LIverpool Liz’ girls and all the rest of them took to the wheel, the society girls got off their wheels and went afoot or went back to the buggy…
It was to be another five years or so [circa 1908] before an automobile was anything other than a curiosity in Portland. But it was the sporting men and women and not the auto that put the bike in the attic for three decades.
Henry Wemme had got the first automobile in Portland in 1899, and by 1905 a small part of the smart set had turned from bicycles to autos. The numbers of these early autoists are small, just a couple hundred, dwarfed by the many thousands of bicycle riders, but they were the political and fashion leaders in society.
There are two published counts of autos for 1905 and 1906. The first suggests that there were 40 in Portland and 218 statewide; the other suggests 40 members of the Portland Auto Club and 242 autos in the entire city. No matter which number you use, bikes were about 50x more popular.
Decline of the Cycle Paths
As automobiles were beginning to enter the market, the sidepaths were declining and deteriorating. In April of 1904, an article in the Oregonian noted that “the first year the bicycle tax law was in operation about $12,000 was collected, and the following year about half that sum. The amount has dwindled down yearly since, and in 1903 only $1800 bicycle tax was realized.” It further observed that “the license tags have not yet been ordered” and “the levy which the law requires” hadn’t been made either.
BICYCLE PATHS DISAPPEAR
Those in City are Being Demolished Beyond Repair
Bicycle paths inside the city are disappearing and will soon be a thing of the past. On Milwaukie street, between Division and Beacon, the path has been torn up, and a man is slowly but surely continuing the work of destruction further south. At Midway on the Milwaukie road, the cycle path has been torn up. On East Twelfth street, between Hawthorne avenue and Division street, the path is nearly gone. On East Twenty-first, where a path was built from Division street to the carshops, there comes a demand that the path be condemned and removed. Complaint is made that it is a nuisance and in the way, so that residents cannot deliver wood and other articles at their homes.
And so the cycle paths that were built along streets in Portland are doomed, and will soon disappear altogether. Owners of bicycles have ceased to pay their license and the county has ceased to pay attention to the paths. In the county the need for these side paths along the county roads still remains as much for the use of farmers as for wheelmen, and can be maintained at small expense, but inside of the city cycle paths along the streets take up too much space; besides Portland is now getting many miles of hard pavement, doing away with the need for these paths.
Lovejoy gets a Car
That same year, 1906, Esther Lovejoy got an automobile. There’s nothing really magical about 1906 – paths were deteriorating in 1904, too. But her timing makes makes her more like an early adopter than innovator, like Wemme.
In Jensen’s account of suffrage campaigning we can see the role of the auto. During the spring election season of 1906, Lovejoy did not yet appear to have one and
arranged for a suffrage entry in the Made in Oregon parade in May, using a carriage filled with children (including her own four-year-old Freddie) with the slogan “Future Voters — Made in Oregon.”
By fall, she had a car.
On Election Day, Pohl organized women to distribute suffrage literature outside polling places in Portland. [NAWSA president and physician Anna Howard] Shaw remembered that “all day long Dr. Pohl took me in her automobile from one polling-place to another” to distribute “sandwiches, courage and inspiration” in a “drenching” Oregon rain.
The 1906 campaign was not successful, and it wasn’t until the election of 1912 that suffrage passed in Oregon. By the election of 1912, bicycling appears to have become a memory, and it was all about the auto and the suffrage truck:
Pohl Lovejoy used the Portland Rose Festival in June to promote the cause with the Suffrage Lunch Wagon….They decorated the “Ballyhoo Wagon,” donated by the Speedwell Auto Truck Company with “bunting, festoons of rose and green, votes for women flags, and signs that bring home the Pacific Coast Suffrage slogan: ‘Oregon Next.'”… The group invited Hilda Keenan, an actor performing at the Orpheum Theater, to lend her celebrity to the cause. Keenan won spectators’ acclaim as she successfully tossed a sandwich to a sailor watching the festivities atop a telephone pole. When the occasional anti-suffragist “hissed” the wagon along the route, suffrage workers rang a dinner bell and smiled, and the crowd responded with “ovations.” It was all spectacle and street performance by design. The “famous suffrage truck” drew festival-goers and spectators by the hundreds and provided unforgettable entertainment and suffrage publicity through the week.
Increasing Auto use in the 19-teens
As Merrill pointed out, the autos didn’t appear overnight. But while many still biked, the auto was sexy new technology and was top of mind in culture. The scope of forgetting about bicycling is neatly visible in the way bike paths were paved and concreted over. Across the river in Washington, in September 1912 police cited a women for biking on a sidewalk. She refused to pay, asserting the “sidewalk was once a bicycle path and the law had not changed it to date.” In January 1913, a judge vindicated her, saying the municipality must dedicate the bicycle path as a part of the roadway.
By this time institutional change is widely diffused. In 1912 the first auto came to the rural town of Pratum, between Silverton and Salem. And in 1913 the Oregon Legislature repealed the bicycle path law and established the State Highway Commission.
Still, there were lots of buggys. In September 1916 Salem did a month-long count of bridge traffic across the river. Automobiles were just 46% of the counted traffic, slightly less than the total of horse-drawn, motorcycle, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic, and about twice that of the horse-drawn vehicle alone. (But we should remember that almost a quarter of these trips in 1916 were by horse-drawn vehicle!)
It took until 1919, and the nation’s first gasoline tax, finally to assure Oregon roads of stable funding.
Although my conclusions must be tentative in some important ways, hopefully additional research will shed light on the changing meanings of bicycling for different groups of people. Because of fashion and cost, bikes were not equally available and attractive to all groups. I hope that I have sketched out a picture of changing meanings for a group of women on bikes. For early feminists, bikes were attractive and useful in the 1890s, but by the end of the first decade of the 20th century, they were often passe. Not surprisingly, this tracks closely with the esteem and effort for bicycle paths.
I hope to learn more about people on bikes circa 1910, but as this frequency chart shows, people wrote about cars far more often than they owned or drove them. The nature and quantity of the evidence changes dramatically from 1900 to 1910, and it is difficult to see what people actually do as opposed to talk about.
And here’s a sweet for dessert!