Tag Archives: bicycling

A Century Run for Women’s Suffrage

In 2017, New York State had the honor of celebrating the centennial of women winning the legal right to vote, and it was my job to think of a way to take that celebration out to New York State’s parks and historic sites. Now there are lots of ways to commemorate such a momentous occasion, but what came to my mind first was bicycles, believe it or not. Susan B. Anthony once said “I think [bicycling] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world,” and matching one of today’s most popular physical activities with one of the most important developments in American democracy just seemed too perfect for words.

It might come as a surprise, but a woman on a bicycle was once a threatening sight—a harbinger of social upheaval that was going to change American life forever. Beginning in the 1860s, women on bicycles were depicted as displacing and overshadowing men. They were ridiculed for their mannish muscles and unusual clothing. They were even accused of neglecting their family responsibilities. Nevertheless, they persisted, and by the mid 1890s, women joined a nation-wide bicycling craze, and—after all that worry—they succeeded in changing what it meant to be a woman after all. Even women who did not ride bikes felt the impact of the changes it wrought.

Women in an early velocipede rac, portrayed as masculine-looking, Harpers 1869
Women in an early velocipede race, portrayed as masculine-looking. Harper’s, 1869.

Bicycles went through a variety of forms before coming around to the chain-driven, diamond-shaped frame we are familiar with now. Even though the new design was being marketed in the 1880s, few women attempted to ride the contraption. Cumbersome skirts, and more cumbersome social constructs about women’s frailty, kept them away. But it was only a few years later in the middle of the decade that the drop-frame bicycle (now commonly referred to as “a girl’s bike”) made way for women’s skirts. To make it easier, they followed advice once distributed by radical dress reformers, reducing the layers of petticoats and hemming their skirts above the ankle to make riding easier and safer. Some daring women even adopted the controversial “Bloomer Suit.” Armed with their bicycles, everyday women were now ready to change the world.

The Bicycle--the Great Dress Reformer of the Nineteenth Century, Puck, August 1896, Library of Congress, Division of Prints and Photographs
Detail: The Bicycle–the Great Dress Reformer of the Nineteenth Century, Puck, August 1896, Library of Congress, Division of Prints and Photographs.
Fashion plates called Gibson Girls became the iconic image of fashionable women in the 1890s. Scribners, June 1895, Charles Dana Gibson
Fashion plates called “Gibson Girls” became the iconic image of fashionable women in the 1890s. Scribners, June 1895, Charles Dana Gibson, Library of Congress, Division of Prints and Photographs.

Taking to the roads challenged pre-conceptions about women in the 1890s. The cost of bicycles fell from as much as $150 to as little as $17.50, making them available to not just middle-class women, but also to some in the working poor. Their speed and efficiency eased jobs for some women like laundresses or even vegetable sellers who vended from clever devices built onto their bicycles. Middle class women benefited from the increased social connection, joining clubs—including suffrage organizations—with greater freedom than ever before. They also proved their physical capability, competing alongside men in “Century Runs,” or one hundred mile races. The ideal of the dependent, fragile woman of the mid-nineteenth century was gradually replaced by the more robust image of the active Gibson Girl in the 1890s.

With all this history in mind, I hastily blurted out, “So I’ll make a biking costume, and buy a vintage bike, and ride around at our historic sites telling people about the history of bicycling women!” Never mind that I hadn’t ridden a bicycle since the seventh grade, and I didn’t have a bike, and I still had to make the biking costume—this idea seemed easy in the dead of winter with three months to go.

Author Kjirsten Gustavson in her bicycling suit at Staatsburg State Historic Site lighter
Author Kjirsten Gustavson in her bicycling suit at Staatsburg State Historic Site.

Fast forward a few weeks, and I found myself freshly in possession of a vintage 1963 Raleigh bicycle (a surprisingly-close substitute for an 1895 model) and deeply engrossed in sewing a bicycling costume—complete with a steel-boned corset and reproduction high-heeled shoes. If I was going to go for a historic bike ride, I was going to do it in style!

It took some physical conditioning. I’m not going to say how long ago I had been in junior high, but it was long enough that I needed a little practice.  But just like the women of the 1890s, I found it refreshing to get outside and feel my own legs powering me through rural New York State, and pretty soon it also came with a sense of pride.

When summer was in full bloom, I found myself driving all across New York State with a bicycle and a big smile, explaining to everyone I encountered why going for a bike ride was, in fact, a celebration of women’s independence. I visited seven historic sites from Sonnenberg Gardens in Canandaigua to the Old Croton Aqueduct in Dobbs Ferry during the summer and fall of 2017, and I rode about 40 miles along with men, women, and children who got some exercise and celebrated some history all at the same time.

Author Kjirsten Gustavson on her 1963 Raleigh bicycle at the Erie Canal Boat Landing Museum lighter
Author Kjirsten Gustavson on her 1963 Raleigh bicycle at the Erie Canal Boat Landing Museum.

Kjirsten Gustavson is the Interpretive Programs Coordinator at the Peebles Island Resource Center. This specialized office helps New York State historic sites preserve and share their history with the public through conservation, exhibits, research, and a broad variety of additional assistance.

Featured image: Grems-Doolittle Library: The Heyday of Bicycles in Schenectady, 1890-1910

Adventure Awaits At Allegany

What’s your idea of adventure? Is it something exotic like scuba diving, mountain climbing or bungee jumping? Perhaps something quieter, such as camping under the stars or exploring a stream in search for brook trout? Adventures can be big or small, but they all push us out of our comfort zones as we learn about new activities and exciting areas of our world.

Allegany State Park, known as the “Wilderness Playground of Western New York” is one such place where adventure abounds. With 65,000 acres of pristine forests, miles of trails, serene lakes and natural beauty everywhere, it’s hard not to find an activity to enjoy.

The Outdoor Adventure Series hosted by the Environmental Education and Recreation Department offers informative, hands-on, free clinics for all those want to be adventurous souls. Each program is led by an outdoor enthusiast who shares their knowledge and passion of their favorite activity. They bring their gear, suggest what you may need to get started and then let you try your hand at fly fishing, paddle boarding or geocaching.

Allegany State Park hosts several unique events throughout the year, such as Geobash, one of the biggest geocaching events around;  Raccoon Rally, a bike festival featuring both  road and mountain bike races  and the Art Roscoe Loppet cross country ski race. The Adventure series promotes these events by hosting a program about the sport or activity in the same month as the event to give people the chance to try a new sport or volunteer at the event. Remember it’s about getting people out, trying something new.

Maybe you’d like to have an adventure without many people around. Quiet water activities such as kayaking, fly fishing and paddle boarding are things anyone can do at any age.  Local shops such as Sportsman Outlet in Bradford, PA provide kayaks to try. Not only will they help you decide what kind of kayak you might like, they also advise you what gear you should take with you to be safe on the water, such as a life vest.  Adventure Bound on the Fly in Ellicottville, NY, introduces one of the newest sports – paddle boarding, and one of the most graceful – fly fishing to young and old giving all a chance to paddle on Quaker Lake or cast with finesse.

If it’s the woods that calls your name, programs such as mountain biking, cross country skiing, backpacking or camping might be more to your taste. Just Riding Along out of Bradford, PA, offers all kinds of mountain bikes – fat bikes, fast bikes and bikes with all the bells and whistles.  Find dirt on the Art Roscoe trails which become tracked cross country ski trails when the snow flies in December. The Allegany Nordic Patrol not only keeps skiers safe during the winter, but they help educate winter enthusiasts about the joys of gliding and sliding on skis through a winter wonderland of snow cover trees.

Camping has always been a favorite activity since the park was first founded in 1921. The first adventurous souls camped in old WWI tents on platforms. Today the education staff pulls out tents, hammocks, and backpacks of all shapes and sizes for even the youngest of explorers to get out in the woods. Staff also answers questions such as what to take, how to pack, and what to do if you see a bear – all important things to know when going out in the woods of Allegany.

The Outdoor Adventure Series covers a wide range of interesting activities for every season, from photographing fall colors, to snowshoeing under a full moon, to fishing for native trout, and paddling on a warm summer night watching the sun set across a lake.

No matter what you try, I agree with Amelia Earhart: “Adventure is worthwhile in itself”.

Be sure to check out the last two programs this year:

Wednesday, November 1, 2017 – 5:00- 7:00 – Summit Warming Hut – Night Hike- What’s in your Pack? Night hike on Bear Paw trail following a short program on the 10 essentials we should carry in our packs. Bring a flashlight or head lamp.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017 -5:00- 6:30 – Summit Warming Hut – Prepare for Cross Country Ski Season – Allegany Nordic will discuss everything you need to know about cross country skiing, from equipment selection to proper clothing.

These programs are open to the public and weather dependent. For more information, visit the Allegany State Park Facebook page or contact the Environmental Education Department at 716-354- 9101 ext. 236.

Post by Adele Wellman, State Parks