Biker Chicks

Bicycles are a 19th century invention, and “bicycle crazes” surfaced periodically, beginning in 1819, then again in1868 (in England and France), but the bicycle craze hit the United States in the last two decades of the century. Bicycles were everywhere in late 19th century American cities; cycling clubs were formed in major cities and small towns alike. An 1895 article in the New York Tribue even made the hyperbolic declaration that the bicycle was “of more importance to mankind than all the victories and defeats of Napoleon, with the First and Second Punic Wars” (quoted in Spreng 269). Bicycling was a regular topic in newspapers, even in relatively sparsely-populated areas like Minnesota and North Dakota. However, there was a lot of controversy about bicycles in the 1880s and 1890s; many of the articles were letters to the editor, complaining about bicyclists riding on sidewalks or riding too fast, but the most scandalous of all bicycle-related news was women cyclists.

Biker chick

Part of the controversy was the bicycling costume, pictured above, especially women wearing bloomers. Several letters in daily newspapers from the Fergus Falls Daily Journal, for instance, express horror at the immodesty of female bicyclists. Bloomers first appeared in the 1850s, but had always had a bad reputation due to their drastic departure from the socially accepted and extremely cumbersome women’s fashions of the time. The short, baggy trousers revealed women’s legs, which was very taboo and was considered by many to be outright risque and indecent. The cycling costume also blurred gender lines, allowing women to wear traditionally masculine clothing. Bloomers and bicycles were very closely related to the New Woman and her defiance of traditional gender roles, to the point that cycling and cycling costume were symbols of late 19th century feminism. For instance, the Grand Forks Herald described “bloomers,” a nickname for female bicyclists, as “women who stood on their rights” (quoted in Spreng 272). And when Cambridge University first granted full admission to women in 1897, male undergraduates protested by hanging an effigy of a woman on a bicycle.

Cycling was also a sort of literary hallmark for a New Woman character. In Grant Allen’s novel The Type-Writer Girl, the main character Juliet is a prototypical New Woman figure; she is educated, employed, she rides a bicycle and has a keen sense of adventure. She opens the narrative musing on the theory that the Odyssey was written by a woman, and she declares, “I will go forth into the world in search of adventures” (Allen 11, 12). For Juliet, exploration, mobility, and employment are essential components of freedom, although, predictably, she longs for romance as well. She observes that “the nineteenth century has a chivalry all its own, which I scruple to depreciate. If it speaks of us as females, it has given us the bicycle, and it almost admits that we are as fit for the franchise as the forty-shilling lodger… That I call magnanimity” (Allen 16). The 19th century has given women the somewhat cold and clinical label “female,” thus erasing the romantic “lady,” but in return it has given these females greater freedom, epitomized by the bicycle. Juliet later describes her love of bicycling:

How light and free I felt! When man first set woman on two wheels with a set of pedals, did he know, I wonder, that he had rent the veil of the harem in twain? … A woman on a bicycle has all the world before her where to choose; she can go where she will, no man hindering (Allen 43-44).

Grant Allen’s protagonist is not alone in this association between bicycling and women’s freedom. Susan B. Anthony praised the bicylce as a vehicle of feminism: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” The bicycle itself and the less-restrictive clothing worn to operate it were symbols of women casting off patriarchal constraints; freed from the heavy skirts and layers of structured underclothing, “bloomers” could go where they pleased. As The Type-Writer Girl demonstrates, the bicycle was closely related to women’s freedom through independent employment; these New Women often used their bicycles for recreation and transportation to and from their places of employment. The bicycle is a liminal vehicle, allowing a woman to traverse the landscape between the domestic and public spheres, using her own will and physical power.

Works Cited

Allen, Grant. The Type-Writer Girl. Broadview Press, 1897.

Spreng, Ron. “The 1890s Bicycling Craze in the Red River Valley.” Minnesota History, summer 1995.

Image source: http://www.vintag.es/2013/02/a-woman-on-bike-circa-1890s.html

Boxing

Many of the sports popular today have their roots in the late 19th century; baseball, football, and boxing all became popular spectator sports after the Civil War and the public’s widespread interest in them reveal a lot about postbellum American culture, especially notions of masculinity. I’ll start with perhaps the most controversial of all the sports, and the one that seems to be declining in the modern era, boxing.

Boxing captured public attention (and outrage) and created a number of star athletes, like John L. Sullivan, the first American athlete to earn over a million dollars. As the sport gained fame, it also became the object of scorn and criticism, ultimately leading to regulations. In its inception, however, the rules were few and varied. The Marquess of Queensbury Rules (1867) provided some guidelines and restrictions, and introduced gloves (which changed the fighter’s stance, from the classic “old timey” pose of a backward leaning torso with forearms up, to the more modern pose of a forward-leaning torso and the hands raised around the face). However, bare-knuckle prizefights were still popular in the 1880s and there was no centralized, regulating body to govern the sport. In the 1870s and 1880s, local newspapers in Minneapolis, Minnesota reported on boxing matches, but took an ambivalent tone in their descriptions, describing the fights in great detail but also commenting on their brutality. The New York Tribune was more decisive in its verdict of boxing; the report on the October 22, 1858 match between John C. Morrissey and John C. Heenan was denounced for its “natural gravity of baseness” and the boxing ring was likened to “the grogshops and the brothels and the low gaming hells” (Horace Greeley, quoted in Hage 321). Newspapers were slow to accept boxing, but it was covered more enthusiastically in sports magazines, which saw an enormous boom in the postbellum era.

The physical brutality of the sport was not the only reason for its notoriety, however. It was a working class pastime and, as such, was a feared catalyst for riots; in fact, riots and brawls frequently did occur in the audiences and boxing matches were often broken up by police. Fighters were occasionally arrested for disturbing the peace. Police attempted to storm the ring in the 1860 match between the British champion Tom Sayers and the American challenger John Heenan. However, the crowd of about 3000 spectators prevented them from reaching the ring. Police eventually cut the ropes of the ring, and the crowd flooded onto the platform, “which scarcely left the combatants six square feet to fight in… the whole thing became a mere close mob round the two men fighting” (The St. Paul Daily Pioneer and Democrat, May 5, 1860). Astonishingly, the fight continued for four more rounds, until the police finally stopped it in the 42nd round. Detailed and passionate accounts of fights, such as the Daily Pioneer‘s quoted above, indicate a more positive view of boxing, while newspapers that overtly disapproved of the sport usually offered curt, dismissive reviews that commented only on the result and the disgrace the fight engendered.

The sport’s popularity grew throughout the 19th century, and coincided with changing conceptions and ideals of masculinity in the late 19th century. The ideal of rugged masculinity emerged near the turn of the century in response to anxieties over the women’s suffrage movement and women’s stronger presence in the workplace, concerns that western culture was becoming effete and effeminate, and fears of the feminizing effects of intellectualism, epitomized in dandies like Oscar Wilde.

old timey boxer

The boxer is the polar opposite of the sophisticated dandy. His bloodied, broken face contrasts sharply with the delicate, feminized appearance of the gallant; the boxer’s brute strength and silence in the ring opposes the dandy’s witticisms and social graces. Historin R.W. Connell observes that “true masculinity is almost always thought to proceed from men’s bodies,” and the late 19th century icons of rugged masculinity exemplify this connection between manliness and the body (Masculinities, 45). Sportsmanship became an accepted part of middle class morality and identity by the late 19th century. Physical fitness and concern for health were incorporated into notions of propriety and standard masculine behavior. As the 19th century drew to a close, the preferred physical ideal became more extreme, more brawny and muscular, rather than the earlier ideal of a slender, graceful and well-balanced body. The boxer came to be an icon of manliness, especially in the early 20th century and into the Great Depression, when the famed prize fighter often supplied a rags-to-riches story, the American dream fulfilled. This is an interesting turn from the fear of working class rebellion in the mid-19th century, and indicative of the changing notions of American identity as a whole, which came to embrace the working class as wholesome and admirably hard-working in the face of adversity, rather than the mindless, violent mob that could overthrow the established power structure.

Works Cited:

Connell, R.W. Masculinities. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Hage, George S. “Games People Played: Sports in Minnesota Daily Papers, 1860-1890.” Minnesota History. Minneapolis: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1981.

The St. Paul Daily Pioneer and Democrat, 5 May 1860.

Shipley, Stan. “Tom Causer of Bermondsey: A Boxer Hero of the 1890s.” History Workshop Journal 15 (1983): 28-59.

Image source: http://i.qkme.me/3r5i0f.jpg