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Doctors Triggered Victorian Bicycle Face Hysteria

Bicycles meant improved health and independence, particularly for women in the late 1800s. But “wheeling” came at a high price according to many respected doctors of the day. They warned cyclists (particularly female) of long lists of health risks, not the least of which were depression, tuberculosis and infertility. But perhaps the worst risk of all was the possible loss of beauty, femininity and life opportunities due to the dreaded Victorian Bicycle Face.

You can see the same look today on freeway drivers: chin jutted forward, lips drawn to a tight line, eyes squinted, and jaws clenched. Like Victorian Bicycle Face (a.k.a. Bicycle Stare), the face is usually flushed but sometimes pale with the beginning of dark circles under bulging eyes. Considered particularly susceptible to the strains of the road, women were warned of this new malady in countless medical papers and popular magazines.

From A Social History of the Bicycle, by Robert A. Smith (1972), pp. 70–71:

The latest feature discovered by cranks
On the faces of ladies fair.
Is known in the great cycle-istic ranks
Of the world, as the “bicycle stare”.
The stares, so ’tis said, on the face of the beauty
Would frighten a mule from the path of duty

Respected Physicians and Authors Created Victorian Bicycle Face

According to The Literary Digest, Sept. 7, 1895 (p. 548).

“Warning against excessive indulgence in “wheeling” will perhaps be heeded more on account of the discovery of the alleged “bicycle face” by English medical papers. It is claimed that over-exertion, the upright position on the wheel and the unconscious effort to maintain one’s balance tend to produce the “bicycle face.”

“…talk about the “bicycle face” has gained considerable currency and given rise to grave discussion concerning the causes and remedies of the phenomenon.”

A number of respected physicians published widely on the dangers of cycling. Among them was Arabella Kenealy. She believed that exercise jeopardized a woman’s ability to procreate. Physician and author Arthur Shadwell claimed to have coined the title of the dreaded condition in The National review. (Sept 1896-Feb, 1897; p. 789.)

“Some time ago I drew attention to the peculiar strained, set look so often associated with this pastime and called it the “bicycle face.’ The general adoption of the phrase since then indicates a general recognition of its justice. Some wear the “face” more and some less marked, but nearly all have it, except the small boys… Has anybody ever seen persons on bicycles talking and laughing and looking jolly, like persons engaged in any other amusement? Never, I swear.”

Trained at Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital and working as an assistant physician in Brighton at Sussex County Hospital, Shadwell’s articles on the dangers of bicycling were respected and often quoted in the popular press. Among the many possible conditions he claimed could be caused or exacerbated by cycling were exhaustion, nervousness, anxiety, goiter conditions, internal inflammation, chronic dysentery and infertility—to name a few.

If all that was not enough to dissuade a lady from taking to the road, there was the threat of skeletal deformities such as a curvature of the spine, mannish walk due to overly developed muscles and a ruddy complexion due to exposure.

Medical Misinformation Then And Now

Before we look back smugly at our ancestors, we should consider the impact of viral information on public health today. A mind-blowing amount of medical misinformation on the internet affects thinking about everything from the safety of childhood vaccinations to sound nutritional principals. Remember the stories about eating your way through a mountain of dark chocolate to find your thinner self?

According to Dr. Brittany Seymour, assistant professor of oral health policy and epidemiology at Harvard University, fake news and distorted evidence threaten the biggest public health achievements of the past century.

At a forum of the Ontario Public Health Association Seymour explained that information overload is a critical issue. People often reject objective facts for information that appeals to their emotions and supports their personal beliefs. With 80% of people seeking health information online, viral misinformation poses a growing threat to public health.

Dale Till, from the University of California, Davis says: “The sheer volume of opinions people are exposed to — whether it’s for ad revenue or on social media — is overwhelming. As their doctor, you need to be mindful there’s an information disconnect, and provide reassurance.”

The school received a $30,000 grant from the American Medical Association specifically to develop competencies in digital health literacy. This includes teaching students how to take information found online by their patients and interpreting it for them, Elliott says.

Don’t Be A Scorcher With A Victorian Bicycle Face!

Why did women wheelers evoke so much anger? It seems that some people felt deeply threatened by the changes underfoot (or under wheel). Evidence of this freedom was percolating everywhere. Then in 1895 Annie “Londonderry” Kopchovsky rode her bike around the world as a marketing stunt for a bicycle company. There was no turning back after that. In 1896 Susan B. Anthony said that the bicycle “has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world.”

Munsey’s Magazine said it best in 1896: “To men, the bicycle in the beginning was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play. To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world.”

People who rode hard and fast (particularly women) were called Scorchers.  “The Feminine Scorcher” published in The Saturday Evening Mail of Vigo County, Indiana on May 9, 1896 (reprinted from Godey’s Magazine) said it all.

“The feminine scorcher is not an altogether lovely object. Unless she intends to be a professional she should leave this form of amusement to the men. a woman with her back doubled into a bowknot, her hat awry, her hair disheveled and her face scarlet with exertion is neither fascinating nor attractive. She takes on an anxious, worried look in her eyes, and has her muscles developed at the expense of her feminine grace…

The woman who has a passion for scorching loes half the pleasure of riding. She rushes along without taking time to contemplate the beauties of nature. The melting hues of summer sunsets, the charm of the smiling landscape, are all lost upon the inveterate scorcher, whose sole ambition it is to do so many miles in a certain stipulated length of time. Besides, she does not take near as much care of herself as the trainer does of a valuable race horse. 

She finally breaks down from sheer exhaustion and decides that her mission as a scorcher is finished.” 

Once a lady became a scorcher, anything could happen. Along with newfound social freedoms, critics feared the age of sexual freedoms. Stories about skimpier garments and newfangled bloomers provided titillating fodder for newspapers and magazines. After all, a woman straddling her bicycle seat in public could come to no good. Never mind the dangers to fertility. The bicycle seat would lead to loose morals—and in extreme cases to prostitution.

A Litany of “Don’ts”

In 1895, the New York World newspaper published a long list of “Don’t’s” for cyclists. The items seem to lean heavily into women.

The below list was originally published by the New York World in 1895.

Don’t be a fright.
Don’t faint on the road.
Don’t wear a man’s cap.
Don’t wear tight garters.
Don’t forget your toolbag
Don’t attempt a “century.”
Don’t coast. It is dangerous.
Don’t boast of your long rides.
Don’t criticize people’s “legs.”
Don’t wear loud hued leggings.
Don’t cultivate a “bicycle face.”
Don’t refuse assistance up a hill.
Don’t wear clothes that don’t fit.
Don’t neglect a “light’s out” cry.
Don’t wear jewelry while on a tour.
Don’t race. Leave that to the scorchers.
Don’t wear laced boots. They are tiresome.
Don’t imagine everybody is looking at you.
Don’t go to church in your bicycle costume.
Don’t wear a garden party hat with bloomers.
Don’t contest the right of way with cable cars.
Don’t chew gum. Exercise your jaws in private.
Don’t wear white kid gloves. Silk is the thing.
Don’t ask, “What do you think of my bloomers?”
Don’t use bicycle slang. Leave that to the boys.
Don’t go out after dark without a male escort.
Don’t without a needle, thread and thimble.
Don’t try to have every article of your attire “match.”
Don’t let your golden hair be hanging down your back.
Don’t allow dear little Fido to accompany you
Don’t scratch a match on the seat of your bloomers.
Don’t discuss bloomers with every man you know.
Don’t appear in public until you have learned to ride well.
Don’t overdo things. Let cycling be a recreation, not a labor.
Don’t ignore the laws of the road because you are a woman.
Don’t try to ride in your brother’s clothes “to see how it feels.”
Don’t scream if you meet a cow. If she sees you first, she will run.
Don’t cultivate everything that is up to date because yon ride a wheel.
Don’t emulate your brother’s attitude if he rides parallel with the ground.
Don’t undertake a long ride if you are not confident of performing it easily.
Don’t appear to be up on “records” and “record smashing.” That is sporty.

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