- May 19, 2017
The doctor was appalled. Two young women “of irreproachable character and social standing” had befriended two “well-dressed damsels” while out riding bikes. The four friends met up for rides for a few weeks, until it was discovered that the well-dressed damsels “were none other than a pair of nymphs de pave”—streetwalkers.
The clear lesson, according to this Louisville physician, writing in an 1897 medical journal: Women should never ride bikes.
At the time, though, it was hard to keep women—and men—off bikes. North American and European cities were in the grips of a major bicycle boom at the end of the 19th century. Though clunky two-wheelers had been invented in the 1860s, and towering high-wheelers (what we now call “penny-farthings”) had appeared in the 1870s, it wasn’t until the early 1890s that so-called safety models made the bicycle practical to ride for people without a young man’s strength and agility. These safeties boasted hip-high wheels with air-filled tires that cushioned the ride on cobbled or unpaved streets; they looked a lot like modern commuter bikes.
At first, the new machines were only for the rich: An early safety might cost $150, at a time when the average worker earned $12 per week. But demand goosed supply, and by the mid-1890s, the average price for a safety bicycle was $75 and falling. Millions of women and men of all ages took up cycling, and the vehicles flooded city streets, vying for space with pedestrians, horse-drawn carts, and electric streetcars. “The bicycle crowd has completely subjugated the street,” wrote the novelist Stephen Crane in 1896 of the scene north of New York’s Columbus Circle. “The glittering wheels dominate it from end to end.”