That’s a Wrap! Our MA History Students Get to Grips with Historical Items in the Archives

‘Episode’ Four: ‘From the ‘boneshaker’ to women’s suffrage’, Oliver Ziebland blogs about bicycles and women’s liberation!

We’re wrapping up our material culture series for the Historical Skills and Resources Module with a short blog by MA student Oliver Ziebland. Inspired by an original ‘boneshaker’ at the Museum of English Rural Life(MERL), Oliver asks how the 1869 velocipede paved the way for the modern bicycle, allowing for cycling to become a symbol of women’s liberation.

Before we hand over to Oliver, we’d just like to say a huge ‘thank you’ to all the students involved and to module convenor Dr Jacqui Turner for all her hard work on this module. We’ve loved these innovative assessment methods and hope you have too! If you want to find out more about our MA options, click here – there’s still time to sign up for September 2022!

From the ‘Boneshaker’ to Women’s Suffrage, by Oliver Ziebland

In 1908 Rose Lamartine Yates became the first woman to be elected to the Cyclists’ Touring Club council. One year later fellow suffragette Alice Hawkins, member of the socialist Clarion Cycling Club, led a campaign to increase membership for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) by cycling from village to village around Leicester. Cycling became an important tool for women’s emancipation at the turn of the twentieth century and it was the cranked velocipede, known colloquially as the ‘boneshaker’, that made it possible.    

Built with wood and iron and weighing up to ninety pounds, the ‘boneshaker’ appears far removed from the modern carbon fibre road bike that can be as light as eighteen pounds. Nevertheless, the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) houses an indispensable piece of bicycle history.

Having acquired its nickname due to the uncomfortable ride over poor-quality roads, this bicycle represents the first two-wheel design to incorporate pedals. Arriving in Britain in 1869, popular interest sparked two decades of rapid development, culminating with the safety bicycle which was first brought to market in 1885. Yet aside from representing an intriguing piece of technology history, the preservation of an original ‘boneshaker’ in the MERL encourages us to consider the significance of such an item outside of its immediate impact on transport, sport and leisure. For cycling played an important and often unsung role in the movement for women’s emancipation.

The Boneshaker on display in the MERL 55/278

The history of the bicycle is largely underappreciated. Even within professional history it preoccupies a rather niche group of transport and technology historians. Perhaps understandably the development of the bicycle is overshadowed by other technological advances of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, most notably the steam engine and motor vehicle. Two wheels, a handlebar, saddle and pedals – its simplicity undermines the ingenuity of its inventors and the bicycle’s legacy as a tool for societal change. In our popular imaginations it is often the penny farthing that emerges as the preferred example of proto-bicycle design. Its large front wheel placing the rider precariously high above the ground has become a peculiar signifier of late Victorian England. However, whilst the penny farthing has greater cultural cache, before the invention of the safety bicycle it was the velocipede or ‘boneshaker’ that had the most impact on the development of the modern bicycle.

Not only was the ‘boneshaker’ one of the first designs to attach a crank to its wheels, it was the first to do so on a two-wheel velocipede that placed its rider out of reach of the ground. For most of us today, balancing on a bicycle is a skill we are all quick to learn as a child, but for the average adult in the nineteenth century it was a total novelty. Designs for such a model emerged in France and the United States in the mid-1860s, and the first ‘boneshaker’ most likely appeared in Britain at the start of 1869. Almost immediately ‘velocipede mania’ swept the nation, as stories of long-distance rides and races around the Crystal Palace captivated audiences. Over one hundred suppliers contributed to a burgeoning British bicycle industry in 1869 and newspapers across the country ran hundreds of advertisements for the new velocipede. The craze was intense but short and by the spring of 1870 the Manchester Evening News was running no advertisements, compared to two hundred the previous year. Nevertheless, the bicycle craze of 1869 was prophetic of what was to come in the 1890s, when the invention of the safety bicycle transformed cycling into a cultural phenomenon.

It was for women that the development of the bicycle into a mass market consumer item had the most significant impact. The ‘New Woman’ of the 1890s became synonymous with the fashionable safety bicycle, providing middle class women greater freedom to travel away from the home. This tested the chaperone system which had previously ensured women were very rarely out in public unaccompanied. Women did not take up cycling en masse until the early twentieth century, but in 1869 the ‘boneshaker’ began to challenge many of the patriarchal conventions that were blocking female emancipation. When it came to cycling, fashion was the obvious barrier. Long flowing dresses and tight corsets made riding the cumbersome ‘boneshaker’ almost impossible. However, a few early pioneers were prepared to ditch such restrictive clothing, adopting pantaloons that were first popularised in France.

Postcard promoting women’s suffrage. New Zealand had become the first country to grant women the vote in 1893

The liberating potential of the bicycle was quickly recognised by American suffrage activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony. In 1895 Stanton predicted that the bicycle would inspire women to have more ‘self-respect, self-reliance’ and ‘courage’, then, the following year Susan B. Anthony went a step further declaring that 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.”

High praise for the humble bicycle. The MERL’s ‘boneshaker’ was itself once owned by a female rider. Donated to the museum by a Mr Claude Brighten in 1955, he had previously acquired it from Lady Frances Clayton-East of Hall Place, now home to the Berkshire College of Agriculture.  Whether or not she ever rode the ‘boneshaker’ is unclear. Yet, Lady Clayton-East’s part in the story of this bicycle speaks to its broader social significance.    

Of course, the emancipatory legacy of cycling is partly due to the patriarchal backlash.  In the sporting comments of an edition of London’s Morning Post published in 1895, one commentator wrote disparagingly of the emergence of women’s organised sport in the 1890s.

Sporting comments, Morning Post, Monday, Nov. 25, 1895  

127 years later for many sportswomen, amateur or professional, the same stereotypes and prejudices persist. Therefore, for feminists today the history of the bicycle should not simply be remembered as a quirk of the early suffrage movement, but as inspiration to continue the campaign for equality in sport and wider society alike.

Further Reading

Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing (with contributions from Nick Clayton and Gary W. Sanderson), Bicycle design: an illustrated history, Cambridge, MA., London, MIT Press, 2014

Shelia Hanlon, ‘Rose Lamartine Yates: The Cycling UK Suffragette’, We are cycling UK, https://www.cyclinguk.org/

Christie-Robin, Julia, Belinda T. Orzada, Dilia López-Gydosh, ‘From Bustles to Bloomers: Exploring the Bicycle’s Influence on American Women’s Fashion, 1880–1914’, The American Journal of Culture, Vol. 35, Iss. 4, (December, 2012), p.315-331

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