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Why Were Victorian Women Warned about “Bicycle Face”?

Margaret Lipman
By
Updated May 16, 2024
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During the 1890s, men and women in Europe and the United States were swept up in the so-called “bicycle craze,” a period in which bicycles soared in popularity and sales. Bicycles were more affordable than ever before, with less expensive models hitting the market and bicycle companies offering payment plans. Unlike the penny-farthing (also known as high-wheeler or ordinary) bicycles of the 1870s and 1880s, which were exclusively reserved for men, the development of the modern "safety" bicycle in the mid-1880s led to numerous models designed specifically for women.

In the late 19th century, the physical freedom offered by cycling allowed women, especially those in the upper and middle classes, to enjoy greater social mobility and involvement in public life. Having access to a bicycle made it far easier for women to expand their horizons beyond the domestic sphere of marriage and motherhood.

Yet, as with many innovations seen as threats to the established social order, the sudden upsurge of women riding bicycles attracted significant criticism. The matter of women’s cycling clothing immediately attracted controversy, as long skirts and tight-fitting bodices were not exactly conducive to riding a bike. Many male onlookers objected to seeing women dressed in the popular female cycling outfits of the late 19th century, which typically consisted of a mid-length skirt, loose-fitting trousers gathered at the ankle, and a jacket.

Amid this atmosphere of disapproval, a fictitious malady known as “bicycle face” began to be discussed by (male) doctors. It appears to have been coined in the mid-1890s by Dr. Arthur Shadwell, a British physician who was a strong opponent of cycling, especially for women. According to Shadwell, the dangers of cycling included appendicitis, chronic dysentery, nervous exhaustion, and internal inflammation, not to mention taking on the appearance of “bicycle face.”

An 1895 account describes sufferers of bicycle face as appearing “usually flushed, but sometimes pale, often with the lips more or less drawn and the beginnings of dark shadows under the eyes, and always with an expression of weariness that becomes more pronounced as the excitement of riding disappears.” Although men could also be struck down by bicycle face, most of the scandalized news reports of the time were concerned with how it would affect women.

Although the term “bicycle face” appears to have been widely used for a few years (as was the similar “horseless-carriage face”), this made-up malady was no match for the enthusiasm of bike lovers who cared more about affordable transportation, exercise, and exposure to fresh air than the laughable affliction of bicycle face.

Watch out for bicycle face!

  • In an 1897 issue of the Phrenological Journal, Dr. Sarah Hackett Stevenson extolled the health benefits of cycling and shrugged off concerns about bicycle face. “The painfully anxious facial expression is seen only among beginners, and is due to the uncertainty of amateurs. As soon as a rider becomes proficient, can gauge her muscular strength, and acquires perfect confidence in her ability to balance herself and in her power of locomotion, this look passes away.”

  • Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, widely known as Annie Londonderry, became the first woman to cycle around the world during an 1894–1895 trip. Amazingly, the 24-year-old mother of three had never ridden a bicycle until a few days before she set out from Boston.

  • The American social reformer and women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony famously wrote in 1896, “I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat, and away she goes, the picture of untrammelled womanhood.”

  • These days, girls and women in many parts of the world think nothing of donning Lycra and hopping on a bike to get to work or school. However, a woman on a bicycle is still a controversial sight in some places, with restrictions imposed on female cyclists in Iran and Saudi Arabia even in the 21st century.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Margaret Lipman
By Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range of topics. Her articles cover essential areas such as finance, parenting, health and wellness, nutrition, educational strategies. Margaret's writing is guided by her passion for enriching the lives of her readers through practical advice and well-researched information.
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Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range...
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