Resting velocipede face


The things people worried about in the 19th century…

One such was the risk that women who rode bicycles would get – wait for it – bicycle face.

Instead, some late 19th century doctors warned that — especially for women — using the newfangled contraption could lead to a threatening medical condition: bicycle face.

Because…what? They were facing forward and paying attention, so they wouldn’t look all languorous and dreamy and fragile, as the fashion was?

“Over-exertion, the upright position on the wheel, and the unconscious effort to maintain one’s balance tend to produce a wearied and exhausted ‘bicycle face,'” noted the Literary Digest in 1895. It went on to describe the condition: “usually flushed, but sometimes pale, often with lips more or less drawn, and the beginning of dark shadows under the eyes, and always with an expression of weariness.” Elsewhere, others said the condition was “characterized by a hard, clenched jaw and bulging eyes.”

Yeah that’s wrong. Just for one thing, it’s only an effort to maintain balance on a bicycle when you haven’t learned to ride one yet. Once you catch on it becomes completely automatic and effortless, and you wonder why it was so difficult before then.

Anyway. It’s always interesting to see people trying to make women feel anxious about what they look like. Such a healthy pastime – unlike that dreadful bicycle thing.

Comments

  1. Al Dente says

    I’ve had bicycle face. When I was in college I used to ride a bike to school and had to climb a rather steep hill. After climbing that hill my expression was “usually flushed, but sometimes pale, often with lips more or less drawn, and the beginning of dark shadows under the eyes, and always with an expression of weariness.” That was a seriously steep hill. Riding down it on my way home was much more fun.

  2. Blanche Quizno says

    In reading The War of the Worlds, in the first chapter (if I remember correctly), the narrator explains that he has to go practice riding a bicycle. The kind of bicycle he was referring to was sometimes called a “pennyfarthing” – it was that bicycle with the enormous front wheel, that required some sort of stepladder to get up on it.

    Back when bicycles were still new technology, you see, they were only accessible to white men. Rich white men. It was only later that bicycles could be ridden by women and children – at first, they were only for the elite and powerful. Rich white men. Now, they’ve become low-rent transportation, mostly the pastime of children, students, and the poor.

    Of course men would attempt to frighten women off – this was their “turf”! What would happen once women started getting in? How DARE they?? We saw similar attitudes surrounding issues of women joining clubs, country clubs, and I’m sure you can think of others. Though “bicycle face” is rather a novelty, I suspect…

  3. Blanche Quizno says

    OMG – I almost forgot. Here’s a series of antique postcards called “The Bicycle Lesson”. It shows a woman in period garb trying to ride a bicycle, and wiping out, to everyone’s amusement:

    The young boy in this picture cannot contain his amusement: http://tinyurl.com/m4f7hhw (notice her wooden shoes – this is in France!)

    Here is a commonplace variant: The brave man who deigns to teach a woman to ride a bicycle is rewarded with smoochies and cuddles!

    From 1906: http://tinyurl.com/ony5eb4

    In the series below, a young dandy impresses the laydeez with his brash hands-free riding style. Naturally, one of the lovelies wants to try for herself (since he made it look so easy, of course), and naturally, she wipes out: http://tinyurl.com/nhr3255

    The woman-wiping-out-on-a-bike seems to have been a popular theme in France a century ago O_O

  4. Blanche Quizno says

    I forgot to add that some of these women-failing-at-learning-to-ride-a-bike postcard series end with the woman demonstrating that she is far more interested in l’amour than in la bicyclette!

  5. says

    I expect you might appear to look somewhat exhausted after riding a bicycle the first few times when one has lived a life of forced inactivity and downward gazing.

    What lower-class women suffered after working in horrible conditions for more than 12 hours a day is nothing in comparison.

  6. Tessa says

    Al Dente

    I’ve had bicycle face. When I was in college I used to ride a bike to school and had to climb a rather steep hill. After climbing that hill my expression was “usually flushed, but sometimes pale, often with lips more or less drawn, and the beginning of dark shadows under the eyes, and always with an expression of weariness.” That was a seriously steep hill. Riding down it on my way home was much more fun.

    I have to go over a fairly steep overpass on my way to work and until recently I had a single speed bike so had that face as I climbed it (if it was really windy I just said screw it, and walked up it). But now I have a multi-speed bike and wow. I switch it to the right gear and I cruise up! Gears cure bicycle face! Take that 1800s.

    Blanche Quizno

    The kind of bicycle he was referring to was sometimes called a “pennyfarthing”

    When I saw “bicycle” and 1800s, this kind of bicycle was my first thought. So when I started reading I imagined bicycle face was something that happened if the bike stopped suddenly and you were launched over the big wheel on your face. That’d make me scared of bikes.

  7. Kilian Hekhuis says

    “Just for one thing, it’s only an effort to maintain balance on a bicycle when you haven’t learned to ride one yet.” – True, but 19th century bicylces weren’t the leisure transportation it is today. For one thing, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the pneumatic tyre was invented.

  8. Forbidden Snowflake says

    Imma quote Kate Beaton on this:

    The greatest thing about the invention of the bicycle and ladies starting to ride them is: everything. The clothes! The bikes! The attitude! But perhaps especially: the scads of satirical cartoons made at the time that were supposed to make women look shocking and inappropriate but just makes them look super stylish and badass instead.

    Beaton’s own “Velocipedestrienne” (first link) is a thing of beauty, of course.

  9. Richard Smith says

    One thing I’ve found odd about bicycles and gender is the “ladies'” bicycle. I understand the lowered and angled top bar was meant to allow dresses to remain appropriately draped, but I always thought it would have been a far more practical modification for men’s bikes. Surely any guy who’s abruptly fallen forward off their seat would rather the first two things to absorb their momentum be their feet on the ground, instead of a different pair against the top bar. Talk about “bicycle face.”

  10. Kilian Hekhuis says

    “but I always thought it would have been a far more practical modification for men’s bikes.” – Yeah, the problem being stability. The “original” bike shape was two connected triangles, the main one’s top of which is the top bar, which makes for a very rigid construction. Removing that top bar makes the frame unstable, which is why, at least until recently, the women’s bikes frame had two downtubes making up for the lost top tube. Of course, nowadays with different materials and industrial design, we can make bicycles in any form or shape

  11. says

    “usually flushed, but sometimes pale, often with lips more or less drawn, and the beginning of dark shadows under the eyes, and always with an expression of weariness.”

    When he was conducting his study did he control for women coming home from the sweatshop to cook and clean for her husband and six children?

  12. says

    @2 – War of the Worlds was published in 1897. What we’d regard as a normal diamond-frame bike (the “safety bicycle'”) or a “ladies’ bike” with a step-through frame was already commonplace by the early 1890s. Ordinaries or Penny-Farthings were still about but on the wane.

    While your characterisation of the early attitude towards ladies riding bikes is pretty much spot-on, women were commonly riding by the time HG Wells was writing, and that line in TWotW is a bit of a throwaway about a hobby the Narrator is trying to pick up.

    What a great series of comments on this thread. :)

  13. chigau (違う) says

    “usually flushed, but sometimes pale, often with lips more or less drawn, and the beginning of dark shadows under the eyes, and always with an expression of weariness.”
    sounds more like what his wife looks like when she’s thinking of England.

  14. Jackie the wacky says

    If I recall correctly, there were also warnings that women would get “bicycle gums” from the air passing too quickly against their faces and of course, the threat of infertility. The threat for women is always that they will be ugly and unable to be bred, thus useless to men and doomed. DOOMED!

    I wonder how many women read that bicycling prevented pregnancy and immediately ran out to get a bike?

  15. says

    I wonder how many women read that bicycling prevented pregnancy and immediately ran out to get a bike?

    I do seem to recall that women enjoying the pressure of a bicycle seat was another victorian concern.

  16. says

    Well, on the bright side, following this post and thread, I do believe from henceforth I shall make it a rule to refer to my bicycle regularly as ‘my velocipede’.

    (Oh. And I tried a short wheelbase recumbent velocipede, t’other night. Comfortable. Crazy fast. Made bikeyface.)

  17. karmacat says

    Of course, they never worried about bicycles hurting men’s testicles. They need not to have worried about women because all their reproductive organs are neatly tucked inside and thus protected.

  18. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    Ooh, is that like when Spongebob and Patrick got “face freeze”?

  19. imback says

    “The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart.”
    ―Iris Murdoch

  20. Kiwi Dave says

    “The brave man who deigned to teach a woman to ride a bicycle is rewarded with smoochies and a cuddle.”

    Aha!! Now I know why my wooing techniques have always failed. I should have remembered that famous advice – a woman needs a bicycle like a man needs a fish.

  21. kbplayer says

    In the 1890s cycling had become very fashionable among the upper crust women of Paris, London and New York. Here’s a picture of the June 1897 cover of Vanity Fair of cyclists in the Bois de Boulogne:-

    http://rosiebell.typepad.com/.a/6a00d8341cac7d53ef01a511e0037c970c-popup

    @ Forbidden Snowflake – love that quote from Kate Beaton.

    I read a girls’ book written in 1900 which featured one of the new cycling women. She’s a spoiled rich girl and from a nouveau background, so the author looks at her askance as an unworthy friend of the heroine. However when she’s introduced she is wearing mannish clothes ie a jacket, has her hair cut short and complains her father won’t let her wear a divided skirt. She’s just been for 40 miles on her bicycle. That was when the new woman was really penetrating the mainstream.

  22. Al Dente says

    karmacat @20

    Of course, they never worried about bicycles hurting men’s testicles.

    The jockstrap was invented because in the 1870s male bicycle riders, aka “bicycle jockeys”, were complaining about discomfort when riding on cobbles and other rough surfaces. The Bike Corporation has been making jockstraps, or if you prefer athletic supporters, since the 1890s.

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