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The Freedom Machine

Despite economic depression the 1890s had an air of optimism and progression that led social commenters to name it the “Gay Nineties”. One advance that captured both the enthusiasm and the technological advancement of this era was the booming popularity of bicycles.

To mass produce bicycles new methods for producing metal frames, ball bearings, washers and sprockets were developed, laying the groundwork for later automobile and aircraft manufacture. Outside the factory, they were part of wider social developments including the momentous move for women’s rights.


Ladies' Columbia Model 31. © University of California Santa Barbara

Trade Catalogues and the American Home, a new resource scheduled for release in April 2017, contains bicycle catalogues spanning the 1850s to 1950s. A few that particularly caught my eye were for the Columbia bicycle and contained female targeted advertising.

Although the bicycle was initially divisive between the classes due to the high price tag, it had an equalising power when it came to men and women. In a now well quoted 1896 article in New York World Susan B. Anthony declared that bicycling had ‘done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.’

Columbia Bicycles, 1895. © University of California Santa Barbara

The bicycle provided women with a means of crossing social spaces cheaply and independently. No drivers were needed, no licences needed to be granted, and in this sense the bicycle gave women an escape from the domestic sphere and clearly defined roles that 19th century society placed on them.

The popularity of the safety bicycle with women made a considerable contribution to the movement for “rational dress” as it did not take long for female cyclists to seek more practical alternatives to corsets and billowing skirts. Bloomers, a type of baggy ruched trouser came back into style, named for the women’s rights activist Amelia Bloomer. 

Columbia Bicycles 1890. © University of California Santa Barbara

The Columbia Bicycle 1890 catalogue, from which the above illustration was taken, extends its greetings to “wheelmen and wheelwomen”, recognising its audience as spanning both sexes. The catalogues not only acknowledged their female readers, but aimed themselves directly at them and their consumer power. The illustration below is from a piece about the importance of choosing the correct cycle. Browsing the catalogues within the collection, it is noticeable just how many choose images of women as the focus for illustration and design. This is particularly noticeable when contrasted with women and products pitched to women featured in sporting and early automobile catalogues.

The Selection of a Cycle, 1898. © University of California Santa Barbara

These documents will be available to view in Trade Catalogues and the American Home upon publication in April 2017. To stay up-to-date with our latest publications visit the news section of our website or sign up to The Primary Source, our quarterly newsletter.

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