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Women Warned About “Bicycle Face” in the 1890s

This young woman is not suffering from “Bicycle Face.”

Bicycling costume, 1890, from Jenness-Miller Magazine. Photo courtesy RememberedSummers.

Bicycling costume, 1890, from Jenness-Miller Magazine. Photo courtesy RememberedSummers.

Nicole Hollander, author of the Sylvia cartoon strip, blogged about a wonderful article by Joseph Stromberg at Vox this morning: The Nineteenth Century Health Scare That Told Women to Worry About “Bicycle Face. To read it, click here.

Alarmed by the freedom women found in cycling — they could journey more than a few miles from their homes — unaccompanied! They could bicycle to work or to school! — some doctors wrote about a new malady which might permanently affect women’s faces.

“Over-exertion, the upright position on the wheel, and the unconscious effort to maintain one’s balance tend to produce a wearied and exhausted ‘bicycle face.’ ” — Literary Digest, 1895.

Bicycle face could make a woman “flushed, but usually pale, often with lips more or less drawn, and the beginning of dark shadows under the eyes, and always with an expression of weariness.” Another source described “a hard, clenched jaw, and bulging eyes.”

Funny: I would think that the usual routine of a turn-of-the century woman — rising before dawn to build a fire in the stove, toting heavy coal scuttles, baking bread for the day, boiling gallons of water to do the laundry and lugging huge washtubs full of wet sheets out to the yard to hang them on the line, all while nursing a baby and looking after one or two toddlers, keeping an eye on the stove, and wondering whether her husband would come home drunk or sober — would also produce a face that was flushed or “pale, often with lips more or less drawn, and the beginning of dark shadows under the eyes, and always with an expression of weariness.” Not to mention a “hard, clenched jaw.”

I urge you to read Joseph Stromberg’s article. It’s researched in several sources and includes a Google graph of when the phrase was most popular — from 1895 to 2000. (I hope all the occurances after 1930 are like this one — references to the previous articles!)

Luckily, women were not discouraged from cycling:

Girl on Bike, circa 1910. Photo courtesy of Remembered Summers.

Girl on bike, California, circa 1910. Photo courtesy of Remembered Summers.

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Filed under 1870s to 1900s fashions, 1900s to 1920s, Children's Vintage styles, Musings, Sportswear, vintage photographs