Bloomers and Bicycles

Front of Meyer Cycle Co. advertising card, 1892.

Everyone has heard the old adage "sex sells".  The use of risque  advertising was already well established by the 19th century.  This amusing turn-of-the century handbill advertising the Meyer Cycle Co., a bicycle sales and repair shop, employs the image of an attractive woman and her 'revealing' clothing to catch the customers' eye.  The folded advertising card has the company information on the front and a simple image of a bicycle on the back but when you open the card...surprise!  The image depicts a typical Victorian-era woman riding a bicycle, as the card opens further a paper pop-up mechanism lifts her legs, and her skirt, revealing her underskirts.

Pop-up image inside of Meyer Cycle Co. advertising card, 1892.

Upon first glance, I thought this historical advertisement was funny and risque.  I made a mental note to use it as fodder for our new blog category "Courtship, Love, and Lust."  The further I thought about it, however, the more peculiar it seemed.  Certainly, the Meyer Cycle Co. was not trying to appeal to female customers?  What woman would want to publicly embarrass herself like that?  Perhaps Meyers Cycle Co. was acknowledging the contemporary rage for bicycling and the way in which the formally non-athletic, retiring female population was embracing this new sport?  Perhaps too, Meyers Cycle Co. was poking fun at women?

Bicycle as a mechanism of women's suffrage.

The 1890s are considered to be the "Golden Age of Bicycles".  Cycling was more than popular, it was an exuberant craze!  Groups of men formed wheelmen's clubs, cities built bike paths, and newspapers abounded with advertisements for bicycle manufacturers.   The far-reaching popularity for this new form of recreation and transportation can probably be best understood  in context to the lives of American women and the women's suffrage movement.  Interestingly, many scholars assert that the use of bicycles by women and the women's movement of the 1890s are directly proportional.  In fact, in an 1896 interview in the New York World, Susan B. Anthony said that bicycling had "done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world."   The Victorian woman's use of and enthusiasm for the bicycle mirrored that of men and in effect the bicycle became more than a mechanism of recreation & transportation: it became a movement toward equality.

Bloomers and bicycles as a symbol of greater liberation.

Journalist Peter Zheutlin, author of Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry's Extraordinary Ride, wrote on his website that "as women learned to ride bicycles they not only gained physical mobility that broadened their horizons beyond the neighborhoods in which they lived, they discovered a new-found sense of freedom of movement, a freedom previously circumscribed by the cumbersome fashions of the Victorian era as well as by Victorian sensibilities. The restrictive clothing of the era -- corsets, long, heavy, multi-layered skirts worn over petticoats or hoop, and long sleeved shirts with high collars -- inhibited freedom of movement and seemed to symbolize the constricted lives women of the 1890s were expected to lead. Such clothing was inimical to even modest forms of exercise or exertion. Cycling required a more practical, rational form of dress, and large billowing skirts and corsets started to give way to bloomers -- baggy trousers, sometimes called a divided skirt, cinched at the knee. Although bloomers first appeared decades earlier, and a major social battle was waged over their propriety, the cycling craze practically mandated changes in women’s attire for any woman who wanted to ride."

Reverse of Meyer Cycle Co. advertising card, 1892.

Zheutlin goes on to say, "dress reform was not a simple matter of practical adaptation; it invoked and challenged popular perceptions of femininity and became a hotly contested moral issue. Eventually, the battle over dress reform, largely fought on the battlefield of cycling attire, and the popularity of cycling among women, forever altered public perceptions of female athleticism and proper female behavior. The prim and proper gentility expected of women yielded to acceptance that women, too, could exert themselves on the bicycle sensibly dressed for the activity and not only retain, but even enhance, their femininity. Once hidden under yards of fabric, women cyclists shed their old skins and emerged, quite literally, as “new women.”

So what do you think, dear reader?  Was the Meyer Cycle Co. laughing with the "new women" or at them?

Filson Historical

5 comments on “Bloomers and Bicycles

  1. April

    Hi, Sarah-Jane:

    I’m working on a book about women and urban cycling called Cycle Chic. I too have discovered a hidden world of enthusiastic women cyclists from the turn of the last century and more and more marveled at the way the bicycle really was a huge, and these day unacknowledged tool of women’s emancipation. The rise of car culture just paved over the contribution of the bike in making women freer. Thanks for this article!

    Reply
  2. John Paul

    Meyer Cycle Co. was just taking advantage of a popular advertising medium sold at the time, 4-color litho printed ‘shells’ with custom client info printed in black ink front and back. The paper pop-up was a new gimmick at the time and the imagery lent itself to a mildly amusing visual reward for a potential customer -of both sexes.

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  3. April

    P.S. If I had to guess, I would say the advertisement is laughing at women, not with them. In those days, women generally had less economic power, right, so who would buy a woman her bike?

    Reply
  4. Emily

    Nice work, Sarah-Jane!
    To answer your question, I’m not sure they were laughing at women or the women’s movement. Consider it from an advertising perspective. You have a better hook if your ad elicits a chuckle. Men were the target audience because they had more buying power. You want to be funny by showing the probably very common scene of a new cyclist falling down; however, you don’t want to depict a man looking foolish because that would make the buyer fear he would look that way if he bought your bike. Show a woman, then, and get the added benefit of attractive undergarments.
    I’m not saying I condone it, only that I suppose this is how they came to design the ad.

    Reply
  5. BD

    This website really helped me with a huge school project i’m working on!!! It is titled “Bicycles. Women. Change. One Revolution at a Time!” It’s about how the bicycle gained the right for women to vote in the 1890s- 1920, when they did gain the right to vote, plus equality and freedom!!

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