Connected \\ May 27, 2020

Salem and the lady cyclist

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, the last time I rode a bicycle was as a child. Just before the stay-at-home recommendation went into effect, I had bought an old Raleigh three-speed bike—and suddenly I was gifted with the time to learn to safely ride it around the city. While my initial intention was to ride my bike to work, I realized that it was a superb excuse to avoid crowded sidewalks. So, with wobbly legs and bandana-clad face, I hopped on and rode back and forth to Salem Willows every day for two weeks.

A woman stands behind a bicycle with a beige house in the background. The author and her beloved 1972 Raleigh.

The author and her beloved 1972 Raleigh. Courtesy photo.

I know that, no matter how steep the path may seem for a new-ish cyclist, it was previously forged by a generation of women whose obstacles were far greater than mine.

At the turn of the twentieth century, women cyclists were known as “wheelwomen,” and these independent, forward-thinking ladies are prevalent within the pages of the trade advertisements that I catalog at the Phillips Library.

If you picture the hilly terrain of Worcester County, the bumpy cobblestone alleys of Beacon Hill Boston, and the snow-covered coastline of the North Shore, it’s hard to imagine that the Commonwealth was once a national hub for bicycling.

Victor Bicycles catalog cover, 1890

Victor Bicycles catalog, 1890 (Phillips Library Trade Catalog Collection)

Overman Wheel Company, based in Chicopee (near Springfield), was king of the late nineteenth century bicycle boom. Their rival Pope Manufacturing Company was based just thirty miles to the south in Hartford Connecticut. In the 1890s everyone wanted a bicycle. Whether you were commuting to your factory job or riding out with friends, this fad transcended nationality, race, and class. However, access to bicycle culture, clubs, and fashion was a privilege only open to some.

For New England society women, bicycles were status symbols which boasted both social standing and commitment to women’s equality. Cycling was one of the first sports marketed to men as well as women, with a special focus on the emerging suffragist movement. Enticing advertisements in ladies’ magazines, illustrated with pictures of carefree wheelwomen, touted the bicycle’s capacity to provide upper class white women with previously unknown freedom of movement. Cycling bloomers were manufactured in many styles and fabrics for daring ladies. Bicycle clubs and riding schools which permitted women began to emerge all over the Northeast—though none were keen on enrolling non-white members. The bicycle boom, just like the suffrage movement, was exclusionary and elite.

An old photograph of men seated in two rows in front of a brick building. Two men in front are on vintage bicycles and all of the men are dressed in suits.

Figure 1 Cyclists, Frank Cousins Collection of Glass Plate Negatives, 1890-1920

Bicycle companies accordingly began to market to the upper-class sensibilities of their highest-paying customers. Overman Wheel Company and Pope Manufacturing Company engaged new illustrators in the Art Nouveau style, a movement emerging out of Europe known for its sinuous, seductive lines and growing popularity among upper-class American art lovers. With the talents of these provocative, experimental illustrators on hand, they created catalogs and posters which were not just advertisements—but masterpieces. Both employed the illustrator Will H. Bradley, who also owned and operated his own press in Concord, Massachusetts. His Aubrey Beardsley-like illustration for Columbia Bicycles 1895 catalog was promoted by the manufacturer as “a work of art.” His cover girl, adorned in a voluminous fur coat, cascades across the page, mirrored by an alter ago in stark profile. Her likeness is carved into the paper with the characteristic woodcut-like lines of the Art Nouveau style, a superficial ode to the Ukiyo-e prints of Japan.

A clipping from The Forum magazine, promoting Pope Manufacturing Company's 1895 bicycle catalog

Clipping from The Forum magazine, promoting Pope Manufacturing Company's 1895 bicycle catalog illustrated by Will H. Bradley. Phillips Library TL435 .P66 1895b

The factory towns of Salem and Lynn were not immune to the bicycle craze. The Phillips Library holds a variety of bicycle catalogs which were distributed to shops like Whitten & Pollard, which engaged in the sale of any product on the cusp of modernization, including bicycles and photography supplies. There was once a bicycle repair shop in the Franklin Building (now the location of the Hawthorne Hotel), run by noted racer D. Edgar Hunter and the Wheelman’s Handbook of Essex County, Massachusetts (Phillips Library, E C539 1884) proclaims Lafayette Street “an unexceptionable ride.” The North Shore was a cycling destination for all, and widely publicized group bicycle tours included notable women like Mary Sargent Hopkins, the innovative editor of Boston’s The Wheelwoman cycling publication.

A hand holden open an illustrated book, "Bicycling for Women,".

"Bicycling for Women," published by Pope Mfg. Co. Phillips Library [Collection of Cycling Material: Articles, Advertising, Cycling Fashions, Etc. 1895-1896] GV1041 .C655

But, as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, the craze began to die down. Whitten & Pollard transitioned from bicycles to automobiles—a new fad for the ultra-rich. While bicycles maintained their popularity as practical vehicles for the working class, they fell out of favor among the indulgent, exclusive upper classes which had financed the bicycling boom. After a decade of immense popularity and collectability, the bicycle reverted to being a humble method of transportation. With less obligation for clubs, shops, and manufacturers to appeal to the whims of the elite, the doors of the cycling world suddenly opened to many previously discriminated against. Ultra-expensive designer bicycles began to fade from the pages of catalogs around the same time the notoriously racist League of American Wheelmen disbanded.

1895 Columbia Bicycles catalog with Whitten & Pollard stamp.

Figure 3 1895 Columbia Bicycles catalog with Whitten & Pollard stamp. Cover by Will H. Bradley. Phillips Library, TL435 .P66 1895

The cycling trade advertising collections of the Phillips Library represent a flashing moment in history when almost anyone could have a bicycle, but not all could afford (financially or socially) the lifestyle that made cycling so popular. Lavishly illustrated catalogs, with golden gilt text and ornate embossing symbolize just how dramatically advertising art may bend to the whims of the most powerful consumer. Today, Salem is home to many new innovations in cycling, including the Zagster bike share, dedicated bike lanes, and loop detectors which allow cyclists to trigger a traffic light. Gone are the days of wheelwomen in petticoats to whom cycling owes (in part) its initial surge of popularity. Today we are reminded that the bicycle is here to stay because it gets us where we need to go.

Catalog of ladies' bicycling fashions available at Almy, Bigelow & Washburn in Salem

Catalog of ladies' bicycling fashions available at Almy, Bigelow & Washburn in Salem. Phillips Library [Collection of Cycling Material: Articles, Advertising, Cycling Fashions, Etc. 1895-1896] GV1041 .C655

TOP IMAGE: Ladies North Shore Tricycle Tour on the Salem Common, 1885, from the collections of the Phillips Library (Salem Streets). Mary Sargent Hopkins is the fifth from the left.

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