February 23, 2015 | post a comment | Betsy Woodman
I remember my grandmother Ethel as a dignified white-haired lady who walked with a cane, but I’m told that she was feisty in her younger years. She learned to drive an automobile early on and apparently was a fearless cyclist.
So there must have been great excitement when her family bought “the first bicycle,” as someone labelled this picture. That would have been in the mid-1890s.
Left to right: my great-grandmother Ida, looking uncharacteristically laid back; my grandmother Ethel, perhaps twelve years of age, sitting on the porch railing; her older sister, Bernice, about fifteen, with the new treasure; and their dad, Willard Everett. Bernice, as the elder, probably got first crack at using the bike, which I suppose she and Ethel had to share. I can’t believe, however, that it was too long before Ethel got her own. Family tradition has it that she used to ride at full speed over a narrow bridge with no railings.
In the picture, the girls’ skirts are definitely short by the standards of the day, although in keeping with sportswear recommended in the August 1895 article in Cosmopolitan Magazine. Ethel is showing quite a lot of black-stockinged leg.
If Bernice and Ethel had to talk their parents into letting them have a bicycle, they could draw on medical opinion backing up their pleas. According to the Cosmopolitan author, bicycling made a young woman strong in mind, body, and will. Physicians claimed that it could even cure insanity.
The bicycle, said Cosmo, was “deliverance, revolution, salvation.” It brought “delicate, fanciful women off their couches…(and) rid them of vapors and nerves.”
In contrast was the damage done by long hours at a sewing machine, which resulted in “constant and unhealthy pressure of the corset upon the lower parts of the body….The eyes are glued to a creeping seam, the back becomes fatigued with the constant and unnatural position …” (The description reminds me all too much of sitting for long stretches at the computer.)
But a bike–oh, being on a bike was sheer bliss. Women breathed “the pure air of heaven” and flew along “in the exultation of the splendid motion.”
Bernice and Ethel have been dead for decades, and I knew them only as old ladies. But I love thinking of them as young girls, flying along on country roads, breathing the pure air of heaven and exulting in splendid motion.