“Bicycle Face!” Women and Cycling in the Victorian Age

August 17, 2015 | Nicole

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Interested in learning about the heyday of cycling in Toronto? Be sure to visit our current exhibit Toronto’s Sporting Past in the TD Gallery located on the main floor of the Toronto Reference Library. Catch the exhibit before it closes on September 5! You can also check out our virtual exhibit to learn more.

Librarian Joanna Morrison, one of the curators of Toronto's Sporting Past, wanted to share this story about the all-but-forgotten condition known as "Bicycle Face." Take it away, Joanna. 

I am sure you are wondering right now… bicycle face?  What’s in the world is that?  Read on to find out… 

The 1890s in Europe and America saw an increase in the availability of bicycles and in particular the “safety” bicycle. Invented in the 1880s, the “safety” bicycle featured two wheels of equal size. As the name suggests, the new design was much easier and safer to ride than the predecessors – the boneshakers, high wheelers and penny-farthings. This safer model of bicycle brought about increased mobility and fitness. It also gave women the opportunity to travel with a greater sense of independence.  


  Cycles Brownie
Cycles Brownie, broadside by Charles Tichon (1800-1900), Thomas Manufacturing Company, Toronto, 1897 


The new bicycle craze was eagerly adopted by many women. It also brought about a dress reform movement with changes to women’s fashion including the introduction of split skirts and bloomers. These new garments and undergarments provided freedom from the restrictions of the traditional clothing of the time and allowed women to more easily engage in physical activities. 

The charming advertising blotter pictured below nicely depicts this great time period for women and cycling:


SP-013_C C M Advertising Blotter
C.C.M. advertising blotter, Canada Cycle and Motor Co., Toronto, ca. 1930 


(Advertising blotters were very popular in the 1930s and 1940s. On the reverse side of the ad, there was a layer of soft absorbent paper which was perfect for blotting excess ink from fountain pens.) 

The bicycle brought about many wonderful opportunities for women but it was also met with criticism from those who felt that cycling and the attire worn while cycling was not appropriate for women.  Those who opposed this new found freedom for women found various ways to discourage them from riding bicycles. One truly preposterous method that was employed was the fabrication of a medical condition that was referred to as “Bicycle Face.”  Women were scared into believing that riding a bicycle would cause unsightly changes to their faces. 

The phrase “Bicycle Face” was most likely coined in the early- to mid-1890s by British physician Dr. A. Shadwell. In 1897, Dr. Shadwell wrote an article that appeared in London’s National Review entitled “The Hidden Dangers of Cycling.” In this article he described what could happen to women as a result of too much bicycle riding. He advises women against “attempting a novel and peculiar experiment with their precious persons,” – the experiment referring to bicycle riding. 

An article in the Literary Digest of 1895, made reference to another article that appeared in the Springfield Republican which described in detail the symptoms that could result from too much bicycle riding: "usually flushed, but sometimes pale, often with lips more or less drawn, and the beginning of dark shadows under the eyes, and always with an expression of weariness" as well as a “hard, clenched jaw and bulging eyes." The condition apparently came about due to the strain involved in attempting to keep the bicycle balanced, thus resulting in a “weary and exhausted bicycle face.” In addition to the “horrors” caused to the face, too much bicycle riding was also said to cause other medical disorder such as internal inflammation, exhaustion, appendicitis, dysentery and nervous attacks.

Thankfully, not all doctors agreed with Shadwell and others who were like-minded, and many people thought it to be absurd.  Wheelwomen and many wheelmen of the day strongly and indignantly denied that such a medical condition existed. The notion that riding bicycles could cause such a multitude of medical problems was short-lived, and women continued to ride the bicycle with great gusto!

As you can see… this woman cyclist is clearly not suffering from “bicycle face!”


SP-132 pictures-r-3041
Cyclist in the Swansea Area, 1900 


To end with, here is an inspirational quote from Susan B. Anthony who was an American social reformer and feminist and played a vital role in the women's suffrage movement.

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives her a feeling of freedom, self-reliance and independence. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm while she is on her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood...” - Susan B. Anthony, 1896

If you are interested in learning more, the journal articles mentioned above are available at the Toronto Reference Library:

"The 'Bicycle Face'". The Literary Digest Volume 11 (548). 7 September 1895.

Shadwell, A. (1 February 1897). "The hidden dangers of cycling". National Review (London).