Riding to work for 120 years

No its not the world’s longest commute! Rather, as Wednesday is Ride to Work day here in Australia, I thought it was a good time to take a look back to the 1890s, when Australians first started riding to work on their bicycles.

If we go back one hundred and twenty years we find that riding to work in 1899 was a reasonably new activity.

Cycling in Australia, as in the rest of the world, was initially a recreational hobby of the well to do. The advent of the safety bicycle and pneumatic tyres during the early 1890s saw it taken up by the middle-classes en masse by the middle of the decade and while initially a source of recreation, it was not long before a far more practical use for the bicycle became apparent. The middle class urban professionals that enjoyed a Sunday tour to Healesville or the Blue Mountains soon twigged to the practicality, not to mention, fun of using their bicycle to get to work.

After all, what better way to show off your up to date machine, than by riding into the office along the St Kilda Road? And if an aquaintance were to stop you to admire it and give you the opportunity to share the details of your most recent country tour, then all the better!  

A woman prepares to alight her bicycle in Chapel St, Prahran in Melbourne. Photo from the Victorian History Library at Prahran Mechanics Institute

By September 1896 the cycling correspondent of Melbourne’s Champion newspaper was able to report that they had counted seventy-three cyclists at five pm between the military barracks on St Kilda Road and Collins St, pointing out that “This will give some idea of the number of men who cycle homewards from their offices.” But it was not only men who were riding to work.

Melbourne’s medical establishment were some of the earliest to take up cycling. One of Melbourne’s earliest female doctors Dr Marie Castilla was not only a keen wheeled tourist on the weekends but could also be seen during the week visiting her patients on her bicycle, her black doctor’s bag attached to her handlebars. Additionally, Dr Castilla advocated in public lectures that cycling to and from work was excellent exercise for women employed in offices, shops and schoolrooms all day.

Miss Jospehine Samuell, a Melbourne elocutionist, who used her bicycle to get to work in the 1890s. Photo Australian Cyclist June 1896

Journalist’s were also quick to seize on the bicycle’s possibilities as a mode of transportation and Melbourne’s female journalists were amongst the first to adopt the bicycle in the pursuit of their reporting duties. Minnetta, Francesca and Rita (the nom-de-plumes of three pioneer Melbourne journalists) were just a handful of those who used their bicycles to cover the wide range of events they were expected to attend and report.  

Cyclists on High St Northcote, Victoria, Australia, outside the town hall. Photo by Dr Thomas George Beckett 1898 Museums Victoria

The depression of the 1890s may not have slowed the adoption of the bicycle amongst the well to do but by the late 1890s, with cheaper bicycles becoming available, it became a reason in itself to take up cycling. For some it meant saving on the cost of keeping a horse which they could no longer afford. For others it could save the cost of a tram or train ticket on each trip to work.  As bicycles became cheaper, and second hand bicycles entered the market, the practice spread, taken up by workers at the lower end of the pay scale; clerks, shop girls and labourers, for whom it provided not only cheap transport but access to a wider range of work. 

A group of women with their bikes. Check out the photo-bomber peeking over the fence!

Nowhere in Australia, or the world, was cycling to work taken up in such numbers as in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, where prospectors took to the bicycle in their thousands to move around the district. Networks of camel pads were quickly repurposed to create the largest network of cycle paths in the world.

Kalgoorlie, Western Australia 1895. Photo Western Australia Newspapers Limited

The network of paths ensured that not only male prospectors but women in the district used bicycles too. So much so that the lady cyclists of the district were invited to join the Federal Cycle Parade, in order to harness their formidable petitioning powers. In 1896 the Australian Cyclist reported that when a “well known Melbourne lady” made the move to Coolgardie, “Horses cost £1 per day over there, and the lady considers a cycle will prove much cheaper.” Sadly, networks of bicycle paths as extensive as that in Kalgoorlie 120 years ago can only be dreamt of in most of Australia for those riding to work now.

Unfortunately, just as it does today riding to work in busy cities could have its risks. Newspapers of the time list accidents befalling commuters that will resonate with many modern day riders, tram tracks and inconsiderate drivers (of carts) featuring regularly as culprits. Less common today in the city but prevalent then was the errant dog, suddenly appearing in the wheelman’s path, and on at least one occasion causing the death of a young booking clerk from Spencer Street Station.

Of course, with people taking up riding to work it soon became necessary to house all those bicycles. Cycle stables were built in Australia during the 1890s, some attached to places of employment, others available for general use, at a cost. Popping up in major and regional cities cycle stables ensured that those riding to work, to conduct business or indeed to shop, had somewhere to secure their bicycle.  Cycle stables like this one in Launceston promised “Bicyclists who ride daily to business will find our cycling stables a great convenience. By payment of a nominal sum weekly they can have the use of our stables at any time during business hours, and, moreover, all machines stabled with us will be thoroughly cleaned and oiled daily”

An advertisement in the Australian Cyclist of 1896

Meanwhile in Melbourne, The Block Arcade boasted cycle stables that were ‘always open’, and included lavatories and dressing rooms, a favourite with the cities cycling ladies.

To be honest, while many workplaces boast end of trip facilities as we like to call them in 2019, a cycle stable, for those whose work isn’t attached to one workplace or who are making non-work trips to business centres would be a welcome addition to the cycling landscape 120 years on! For some reason, recent attempts in Melbourne at least haven’t caught on.

Patently improved cycling knickers

One of the books I enjoyed the most last year was Kat Jungnickel’s Bikes and Bloomers. Victorian Women Inventors and Their Extraordinary Cycle Wear. The bicycle boom of the 1890s was not only instrumental in getting middle-class women out of their homes and onto the streets on bicycles, but also propelled them into another traditionally male domain, intellectual property, via the registration of patents for cycle clothing.

Cover of Bikes and Bloomers by Kat Jungnickel Goldsmiths Press London 2018
Bikes and Bloomers by Kat Jungnickel Goldsmiths Press London 2018 Available from the State Library Victoria

Kat and her team take an in depth look at the patents and designs of six female inventors addressing the problem of comfortable practical cycle clothing for women. Their work is focussed on Victorian Britain but it got me wondering, did Melbourne women register patents for cycle clothing at the same time?

There was certainly an incentive for women in Melbourne to come up with new designs for cycle wear. Like their cycling sisters in the UK, Australian women could choose between traditional women’s dress and the very distinct possibility of an accident caused by their skirts and petticoats getting caught in moving parts or choose more practical variations, often called ‘rational dress’, and suffer the inevitable abuse that went with wearing them. As one woman writes to the Editor of The Champion in July 1895;

‘I abandoned a skirt and adopted rational dress for greater safety (twice being nearly killed by my skirt catching in the pedals), and not, as the enemies of cycling say of all women who wear rational dress, because of vanity.

Kat Jungnickel’s book lists British Cycle Wear Patents submitted between 1890-1900 and this is where I started, imagining that Australians might well submit patent designs via the British office for one reason or another. Voila! Patent No. 6929 is registered by an Ethel Eva Levien of St Kilda Road, Melbourne and is for ‘Improved Women’s Cycling Knickers’. Ethel was a daughter of the Hon. Felix Levien, a prominent Melbourne businessman and politician. They lived in Madowla, one of the beautiful mansions lining St Kilda Road at the time, and she appears in Melbourne Punch as one of the debutantes of 1894.

Ethel Levien debutante portrait
Ethel Levien, gentlewoman, and cycling knickers inventor. Photo from Melbourne Punch 1895. you can find it on https://trove.nla.gov.au

Like many society debutantes she toured England and the continent with her mother and eventually settled in the UK. Reports of her cycling proficiency appear now and then in Melbourne society papers over the ensuing years and cycling remained a significant enough part of her life to inspire her to design her own cycling knickers six years on.

Part of Ethel Levien's 1900 UK patent application no. 6929
Part of Ethel Levien’s 1900 UK patent application no. 6929 You can search European patents at Espacenet, which at least for now, includes British patents. https://www.epo.org/searching-for-patents/technical/espacenet.html#tab-1

Interestingly, the practical problem that Ethel’s cycling knickers seem to be trying to solve is one that cycling wear manufacturers are still coming to grips with today. With an opening in the centre of the knickers, instead of at the sides, Levien’s design bears some resemblance to more recent attempts to improve the practicality of full cycling bibs for female riders. She mentions that they should be easier to get on and off but also has several references to their appearance, which implies they are not intended to be worn under a skirt. It makes me wonder about the sort of cycling Ethel was doing? The combination of knickers with no skirt and the ability to take a toilet break without fully disrobing and I’m imagining her on some outdoor adventures. I’m not sure I’d want to be sitting on those buttons for any length of time though!

Diagram from Ethel Levien's 1900 UK patent application no. 6929
Diagram from Ethel Levien’s 1900 UK patent application no. 6929

Closer to home, or Melbourne, Australia, a Mrs Feldon caused not a little excitement in the cycling press with a costume she had devised that allowed women to ride diamond framed bicycles with the comfort of rationals but the appearance of a skirt. With the consistent abuse that wearers of rational dress attracted every time they left the house this would have been a very appealing design. Mrs Feldon was a dressmaker located in St Kilda, a location frequented by society cyclistes in particular after finishing their laps of Beaconsfield Parade and it is not unlikely the idea was suggested to her by one of her clients. Many middle-class women went to tailors and dressmakers for their cycling, and other, costumes. Australian Cyclist reports early in 1896, under the heading A Perfect Rational Dress;

Mrs Feldon of St Kilda has invented a cycling skirt which can be worn on a diamond or dropped frame, and combines the safety of ordinary bloomers with the grace of a walking dress. The wearer, when seated on a diamond frame, appears to be in an ordinary skirt ……..

The article goes on to say that Mrs Feldon plans to patent her invention and indeed from October 1896 onwards Mrs Feldon’s many advertisements describe her skirt as not only the only Approved costume but herself as Inventor and Patentee.

Mrs Feldon's advertisement in the Jewish Herald 1897
Mrs Feldon’s advertisement in the Jewish Herald 1897

However, despite searching online databases for patent registrations in Australia, the UK and the United States, I can’t find any record of her patent being registered. Was she bluffing? Or did she register under another name?

Another Melbourne woman, Agnes Henderson registered a patent at the same time for an improved cycling skirt. Like Mrs Feldon, Henderson was a dressmaker, so had the technical skills to engineer new clothing. Unlike Mrs Feldon, newspaper reports of the time mention that she was also a very capable cyclist. Her patent, no. 13166 in Victoria, was for a skirt fitted with chords with which the wearer could adjust the length of the skirt; ankle, knee or even higher, according to their activity.

Agnes Henderson’s ‘Improved Cyclig Skirt’ patent application
you can search for details of Victorian patents at the SLV.

A cyclist could wear the skirt high over their knickerbockers when riding in the country and lower it to a respectable length on arrival in town. It could even be adjusted to accomodate a diamond framed bicycle. Agnes was given a position at Melbourne’s George and Georges Federal Emporium from where customers could order their custom made, and improved, cycling skirt.

Agnes Henderson’s ‘Improved Cyclig Skirt’ patent application
you can search for details of Victorian patents at the SLV.

These are just a couple of examples of the ways in which Melbourne women took up the challenge of engineering clothing in which they could safely ride a bicycle. It’s interesting that more recently, women still found it difficult to find well designed cycling clothing, particularly those indulging in sportier cycling, and that the last decade or so has seen many cycling labels created by women to address just this issue. Melbourne women are still stepping up to the challenge with local brands, like Fondo for example, created to address the gap but how bizarre that here we are 125 years later, revisiting some of the same issues?

I highly recommend checking out Kat Jungnickel’s Bikes and Bloomers book. Here’s a great little video about her project to whet your appetite.