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19th century Outdated Theories

“Fear” the bicycle face

On today´s World Bicycle Day I want to cover a “medical” issue in the 19th century: the so-called “bicycle face”.
Today cycling is appreciated for its positive effect on the climate and the human´s health. In the late 19th century it was seen as a health risk for women. But why?

What is the bicycle face?

The Literary Digest described it in 1895: Balancing the bike leads to a wearied and exhausted face expression, the “bicycle face”. How to recognize it: “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.”

The bicycle face could happen to men too but women were seen as more vulnerable to that malady.

There were different interpretations why the bicycle face happened: Some blamed the seat, others the vibration.

Some doctors said it was a permanent condition, while others argued that it disappeared after some time – when the cyclists got used to riding her bike.

… and other bike-related medical issues

Women´s cycling was related to impact their physical, sexual, and mental health.

Physical disorders associated with cycling were:

  • skeletal deformations, called kyphosis bicyclstarum or cyclist´s hump
  • arthritis
  • headaches
  • appendicitis
  • gallstones
  • “apoplexy of the brain”
  • general invalidism
  • severe cardio-vascular illnesses like tachycardia
  • muscular overdevelopment
  • anemia
  • eyestrains
  • rumours on rendering mute due to heavy breathing.
Cartoon “A Warning to Enthusiasts”
Source: Punch

Cycling was thought to cause the following mental issues:

  • exhaustion
  • insomnia
  • depression
  • hysteria
  • neurasthenia
  • disorientation
  • stress related sudden break-downs
  • tensions due to balancing
  • the worst case scenario was “cyclomania”, the addiction to cycling.

Riding the bike was said to effect the reproductive system and lead to the following medical problems:

  • The saddle could pressure the reproductive organs and absorb harmful vibration.
  • uterine displacement
  • mal-menstruation
  • infertility
  • loosing sexual morals
  • dangerous for pregnant women: could lead to foetal deformations, difficult labour, still births, an inability to breast feed and especially being a bad role model.

And it was supposed to make a women less female:

  • she would become to muscular and build a man-like body
  • walk and behave like a man
  • get tanned

Getting tanned was of major concern: Women -especially those of social status- were supposed to be pale. That´s why Victorian women wore parasoles, which they could not do while cycling.

In short, cycling messed with the expectations who women at the end of the 19th century should be like. Furthermore, the gained independence was not appreciated.

The only cure?!

Well the treatment of the bicycle face is pretty easy: DON´T RIDE your BIKE.

If women “needed” to cycle, they got “useful” advice how to not do it.

How to NOT ride a bike from a 19th century´s perspective

The New York World published a 41 items list of “don´t” for female cyclists in 1895. Here are my favourites:

Behavioural NO-GOs

  • Don´t faint on the road.
  • Don’t cultivate a “bicycle face.”
  • Don’t refuse assistance up a hill.
  • Don’t neglect a “light’s out” cry.
  • Don’t use bicycle slang. Leave that to the boys.
  • Don’t allow dear little Fido to accompany you.
  • Don’t ignore the laws of the road because you are a woman.
  • Don’t scream if you meet a cow. If she sees you first, she will run.

The DONT´s of dressing

  • … wear a man´s cap.
  • … try to ride in your brother’s clothes “to see how it feels.”
  • … wear jewelry while on a tour.
  • … go to church in your bicycle costume.
  • … wear a garden party hat with bloomers.

Tip: If you want to read the full list click here.

Why the theory is outdated?

… simply because it is wrong.

Famous representatives of that theory were Arabella Kenealy (1859-1938) and Arthur Shadwell (1854-1936).

The medical profession generally has thus, I believe, been misled into an overfavourable or overconfident view of cycling, […] to approve of anything which takes people into the open air and gives them occupation and exercise, and since all that they hear of the bicycle is in its favour, they readily commend it to all and sundry, unless some serious and definite reason exists to the contrary.

Arthur Shadwell (1897): The hidden danger of cycling

The counter-movement: “bicycle face” – what?

These medical theory ended soon. By the end of the 1890s doctor Sarah Hackett Stevenson clarified in the Phrenological Journal:

“[Cycling] is not injurious to any part of the anatomy, as it improves the general health.”

Sarah Hackett Stevenson (1897) in the Phrenological Journal

Doctors who did not believe in the bicycle face pointed out that the exercise at the fresh air was healthy for the women too. But the cycling should not the exaggerated.

The bicycle was a great equalizer and impact the emancipation process: That explains the fear in society but not that medicine served the gender stereotypes of the time and manifested them.

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