Minneapolis has a lively, historically-aware coolness—even when it’s hot. When we stopped here for a few days, two attitudes we immediately noticed were creativity and bike friendliness; no clue whether there’s a relationship between the two. But everywhere you turn there are resources for cyclists. You don’t see swarms of bicycles like in some European cities. But the bike infrastructure is impressive, especially given their weather extremes and how committed you’d have to be to use this resource year-round. (It was 95º on the July afternoon we were riding around the city.)
Curious about why Minneapolis was so bike-happy, I started asking locals about it. I got the sense that it’s just always been that way, but that bike commuting has been getting more popular. Hmmm, that doesn’t really seem to explain it.
I like a town with a strong sense of its own history. Along with small regional museums, groups like the Minnesota Historical Society really feed my interest in a place. So, dipping into their publication, Minnesota History, I wasn’t surprised when I came across an article about the bicycle craze of the 1890’s. The cycling obsession spread across the country from the 1876 Philadelphia centennial exhibition where English cycles were featured, but this is one region where it really caught on. Cycling clubs were organized, sponsoring 10-12 mile evening rides, sometimes for as many as 50 people. An ambitious club in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, put on a 52-mile ride; bicycle racing appeared; one man placed an ad wanting to “exchange [a] good bird dog for a bicycle.” By 1894, more women were also riding, wearing “bifurcated” skirts, one newspaper noted, without benefit of “escorts of the sterner sex.”
Bicycling news was covered almost daily; people complained about cyclists on sidewalks and the attire of female riders. In the community of Elbow Lake, women organized a Bloomers Cycling Club. The biking craze fed the upset about the “new woman,” partly because now she had a reason to wear bloomers. (When they were introduced in 1852 these baggy pantaloons, originally worn under a skirt, caused an uproar because “most ladies would not admit they had legs, much less display them.” At the time, the fashion petered out.) When they took up bicycling, women found it impossible to ride without making it obvious they had legs. Then they went further, discarding their whalebone corsets so they could breathe.
This was one of those moments when the push for freedom was unstoppable. When bloomer-clad, uncorseted women took to their bicycles, the status quo was horrified. Worse, the “new woman” had a new perspective. One paper reported that in Indiana, some women “determined not to overwork themselves cooking for threshers,” and opined that next, the “thinking” woman might “even demand a bicycle.” Nearby, a Grand Forks paper said the bloomer girl “stood on her rights;” and, always willing to note the appearance of women cyclists, wrote “the more shapely they are, the more attention” they get.
The bicycling community, though, opened up their races, fairs, and parades to bloomer-clad cyclists. Local clubs pointedly refused to align with the League of American Wheelmen, a national group that disapproved of women’s cycling races.Riding schools invited women to participate and awarded prizes to the “most graceful lady cyclist” in parades.
Naturally, given their advantages in freedom, comfort and practicality, women began to “wear the bloomers without the bicycle.” Then, even women who didn’t take up either bloomers or bicycles started shortening their skirts, which one author called “a consummation devoutly to be wished.” Even as interest in cycling waxed and waned, bloomers and rising hemlines continued to be popular, and by 1900—this was still well before women could vote—some ambitious ladies in the area tried to run for local school boards.
Cycling proved to be one of those disruptive innovations that changed not just our fashions but our lives. Livery horse stables and tobacconists (cigar consumption dropped considerably) weren’t the only businesses to be impacted. Doctors had a whole new class of injuries to treat. Clothing stores began to promote “bicycle hose” instead of “stockings”; one store ran an ad for a “bicycle waist and bust supporter” (with illustration)! The Northern Pacific railroad refused to take on bicycles as baggage because they didn’t want to lose out on round trip ticket sales; but bikers won when courts ordered the railroads to carry bikes. Cyclists helped speed up the paving of streets and sidewalks. Bicycling passed from being a craze to being a part of everyday life.
Of course, this love of cycling wasn’t unique to Minnesota, but apparently it’s a trend that really took hold here. According to Bicycling magazine, Minneapolis is the country’s #1 Bike City, with more bike trails than anywhere else and more on the way. Which is impressive considering the magazine also provides tips for how to get help when you have a blowout in the winter so you don’t freeze to death.
For the core information in this post I have to give credit to Ron Spreng, author of “The 1890s Bicycling Craze in the Red River Valley,” which appeared in the Summer 1995 issue of “Minnesota History,” a publication of the Minnesota Historical Society.
- Header image: The Stuhr Museum, www.stuhrmuseum.org/research/play.htm
- Ferodowill Brothers bicycle repair shop, St. Paul, c.1890. Minnesota Historical Society, www.mnopedia.org/multimedia/ferodowill-brothers-bicycle-repair-shop
- Vintage female in woolen bloomers. Soar Blog, www.soarcomm.com/blog/category/women/
- Flour City Bicycle Club, Minneapolis. Minnesota Historical Society, http://collections.mnhs.org/cms/largerimage.php?irn=10325828&catirn=10722353
- Lady Scorcher in bloomers, Circa 1900. Photowings, http://photowings.org/bicycles-and-bloomers/