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St. Louis Regional history comes alive in this joint production by KDHX and the Missouri Historical Society. Stories of our past are connected with the present in these well researched and entertaining short presentations about the people, places, and events that have shaped who we are and who we are becoming. 

Jun 24, 2022

Who knew that bicycling could be so scandalous? But in the late 1800's a bicycling craze would lead some women to dress in a way that was not in the social norms at the times.  Just Press play to hear the whole story.

Click on search links to see if there are episodes with related content: Andrew Wanko, Women's History, Pastimes and Leisure,

Podcast Transcript: I’m Andrew Wanko, Public Historian of the Missouri Historical Society, and Here’s History on 88-one, KDHX. ———

In the summer of 1896, the United States was stricken with “wheel fever.” Bicycling became a verified mania, and St. Louisans were some of the most enthusiastic riders. In 1896 St. Louis reported two million dollars in bicycle sales - at 75 dollars a bike, that’s over 27,000 bicycles in a city of 500,000 people. One St. Louis reporter was astonished when he counted more than 2,800 bike riders pass the corner of 4th and Walnut in a single day’s morning commute. ——

While complaints were plenty about bicycles clogging streets and “scorchers” flying past pedestrians in city parks, the biggest controversy was that women wanted to ride bikes too, and they were taking off their dresses to do it. Because a long dress made pedaling nearly impossible and could get dangerously snagged in the gears of a bicycle, many women adopted baggy, knee-length pants called “bloomers” that left their lower legs free. ———

“With their nether limbs exposed,” as one astonished St. Louis reporter put it, “Bloomer Girls,” dominated news about bicycling.  Women’s rights advocates praised bloomers for freeing women from fashion bondage, while others vilified bloomers as immodest or even ruinous to social order. One anti-women-biking St. Louis newspaper article displayed before and after illustrations of “pale beauties” transformed into “perfect frights” by bicycle riding. With windblown hair, sun-flushed cheeks, and of course, bloomers on display, these illustrations meant to terrify must have actually looked wonderfully enticing to countless St. Louis women. ——-

While “wheel fever” quickly peaked and fizzled across the late 1890s, the battles over women’s fashion and freedom that bicycling sparked were part of a much wider pushing back against the Victorian era’s strict social rules. For St. Louis women in 1896, bloomers and bicycles were more than just new clothes and transportation – they were a doorway to personal independence, friendships, increased self-esteem, and the thing society so often stole from their lives – a source of fun. ———