Bustles & Bicycles; The bike as a Vehicle for Social Change


A fascinating theme running through the study of history seems to be the domino effect of seemingly unrelated events on one another. For example how did a volcanic eruption in 1815 lead to a change in the way women dressed in the 1900s, and how was all of this facilitated by the advent of the bicycle?  The volcanic eruption in question was that of Mount Tambora in modern day Indonesia. The following year, 1816, became known as “The Year Without a Summer”. Following the eruption, volcanic clouds of ash stretched as far as 1400 kilometres away and clouds of polluted rain as well a hazardous dry fog reached as far as the US. The effect of the eruption caused a global climate dip for the summer which led to extreme levels of crop failure. In Europe these crop failures caused mass starvation of horses and other work animals. This anomaly in nature is what inspired German man, Baron Karl Von Drais to seek out an alternative to peoples’ dependence on horses. What he came up with was to be forbearer of the modern bicycle. His invention, patented in 1818, was named the “laufsmachine”, German for ‘running machine’ and was the first mass made two wheeled, steerable, human propelled machine. It had no pedals, was made almost entirely from wood save for the iron shod wheels and weighed about 48lbs.

1818 Laufsmachine                                       1860s Safety bicycle

The invention became popular, mostly as novelty, among wealthy men of Germany and France. The concept of this machine was noticed by a cartwright in London named Denis Johnson, who went on to patent an improved version. His  version was named the “pedestrian currcicle” but was commonly referred to as the “Dandyhorse” after the wealthy fops or ‘Dandys’ who rode them. It became somewhat of a craze among English aristocracy until riders using pavements began to be fined. Many different builds and versions of human powered vehicles followed including three and four wheeled models, but most were short lived failures. The first genuinely commercially successful model was a French development of the 1860s. It used rotary cranks and pedals mounted on the front wheel hub. There were concerns over its safety and stability and it was nicknamed “the boneshaker”. The design of the bicycle was constantly amended and improved and by the 1890s it had taken the form of the “safety bicycle” which has most of the features of a modern bike. Its perfection and development into this form happened to coincide with the first wave of feminism.

The bicycle gained mass popularity in the 1890s for upperclass men as a form of entertainment and then for middle class working men as a form of transport. While for men the bike was tool of leisure or utility, for women it represented much more. It offered women freedoms and independence they had not previously had. Before the bicycle women were expected to progress on foot, in carriages or on horseback riding sidesaddle. They were treated as frail, delicate creatures and as such were constantly under the supervision of the men in their life. If you look at the expectations placed upon women at the time – the demeanour and physical presence they were expected to portray, it was anything but realistic. Portraiture and advertisements from the end of the 1800s gives an indication of what women were ‘supposed’ to be. The fashion was to be extremely thin, pale and frail looking. To the modern gaze the women depicted look almost sickly.