The bicycle, when it was still new technology, went through a series of rapid iterations in the 19th century before it really went mainstream. Designers toyed with different-sized front and back wheels, the addition of chains and cranks and pedals, and tested a slew of braking mechanisms.
By the 1890s, America was totally obsessed with the bicycle—which by then looked pretty much like the ones we ride today. There were millions of bikes on the roads and a new culture built around the technology. People started "wheelmen" clubs and competed in races. They toured the country and compared tricks and stunts.
The craze was meaningful, especially, for women. Both Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are credited with declaring that "woman is riding to suffrage on the bicycle," a line that was printed and reprinted in newspapers at the turn of the century. The bicycle took "old-fashioned, slow-going notions of the gentler sex," as The Courier (Nebraska) reported in 1895, and replaced them with "some new woman, mounted on her steed of steel." And it gave women a new level of transportation independence that perplexed newspaper columnists across the country. From The San Francisco Call in 1895:
Others, like this Sunday Herald writer in 1891, were decidedly less open minded:It really doesn't matter much where this one individual young lady is going on her wheel. It may be that she's going to the park on pleasure bent, or to the store for a dozen hairpins, or to call on a sick friend at the other side of town, or to get a doily pattern of somebody, or a recipe for removing tan and freckles. Let that be as it may. What the interested public wishes to know is, Where are all the women on wheels going? Is there a grand rendezvous somewhere toward which they are all headed and where they will some time hold a meet that will cause this wobbly old world to wake up and readjust itself?
Yes, bicycle-riding required a shift away from the restrictive, modest fashion of the Victorian age, and ushered in a new era of exposed ankles—or at least visible bloomers—that represented such a departure from the laced up, ruffled down fashion that preceded it that bicycling women became a fascination to the (mostly male) newspaper reporters of the time.
Which brings us to a rather remarkable example, from a May 1897 edition of The New York Sun, of early American mansplaining. This particular example features an entire spread—complete with illustrations—of various women's toe-to-knee style in the bicycle age, and writer W.J. Lampton's thoughts on what regional fashion revealed about the city in which a woman was biking. Lampton presents his findings lecture-style (and, curiously, refers to the illustrations as if the reader can see them on a screen), suggesting "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glories of the Whirling of the Wheel" as musical accompaniment.
Lampton calls his essay: The Evidence of the Bicycle from the Shores of the Atlantic to Those of the Pacific—a Trail of Wondrous and Varied Beauty. The pictures are charming and the copy is outright bizarre, full of flourish and objectification. Here's what he has to say about the bicycling women of Boston:
"As you are all so well aware, Boston is famed for her intellectuals...There is a delicate grace and refinement limned upon the canvas, so to speak, that is as transcendental in its esoteric concept of the metempsychosis of a plate of beans as there is in the sacred codfish that flutters its ichthyological tail over the golden dome of the State House."
While Atlanta was creepily praised for "her glorious and goddesslike daughters" who "speak for themselves, silently, but oh so expressively."
Lampton ultimately liked Brooklyn's style: "I have given you here in this modest little picture a refreshing and rural type, which I know will come to you as a breath of fragrance from the apple blossoms and the new-mown hay. How lovely is Brooklyn, and how refining and enobling are all her influences."