Review of Women and Bicycles in America, 1868-1900

Segrave, Kerry.  2019. Women and Bicycles in America, 1868-1900. Jefferson, NC: McFarland Publishing Company, 2020. Pp. 230. 146 photos, notes, bibliography, index. $55.00 paperback.

Reviewed by Leslie Heaphy

In Women and Bicycles in America, 1868-1900, author Kerry Segrave examines the growing bicycle craze in the late-nineteenth century and its effect women. Although the tricycle started the craze, the bicycle would take over, not only helping women gain freedom and mobility but also dress reform.

McFarland Publishing Company, 2020.

Segrave begins with a breakdown of the book’s seven chapters. The first three chapters follow a chronological approach while the final four focus on the 1890s. These chapters have a more thematic approach, with an emphasis on such topics as health, morality and fashion. The first chapter is the shortest of the seven and chronicles the early history of the bicycle, from the dandy horse to the velocipede. This early bicycle did not attract female riders, as their attire did not accommodate the machine’s workings. When the tricycle arrived on the scene, women began to ride.

By the 1890s, the bicycle craze was well under way, with races and transportation inspiring interest in the vehicle. As women’s fashion began to change, particularly as bloomer pants became somewhat more acceptable, it became easier for women to ride the normal bicycle. While women did not race, they did use the bicycle for transportation and to go about without chaperones. As Segrave emphasizes, not all responses to women cyclists were positive. Not only did the propriety of women going out alone bother many, but the health benefits of bicycling also were not understood as favorably. Exercise generally was seen as a male domain, as it was believed that women did not need to be strong and fit to carry out their responsibilities in the home.

Segrave pulls his details from newspaper sources, including numerous illustrations and quotations from period articles. These features are the biggest strength of his book. The inclusion of photos, illustrations, and advertisements from the original sources allows readers to see for themselves how cycling was viewed and who took part. For those interested in further research, he also includes chapter notes and a bibliography of all the stories he found. Missing from the book, however, is a conclusion. The book instead ends rather abruptly, with a final chapter on fashion that does not tie all the details together.  This circumstance could be a product of other somewhat curious editorial choices, as the purpose of the book is detailed in the preface not the introduction, which just explains each chapter.   

Nonetheless, reading Segrave’s account will give one increased knowledge of what was being written about cycling during the Industrial Revolution. The book thus would be good for any introductory sports class or even one on women’s history.

Dr. Leslie Heaphy is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Kent State University. An admitted New York Mets fan, Dr. Heaphy has published several works on women in baseball and on the Negro leagues. 

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