Bicycle face

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Bicycle face was a fictitious disease used by the medical establishment in the 19th century to discourage women from cycling, in response to the unprecedented freedom women gained to travel outside their homes alone with the invention of the bicycle in the early 1800s. Opposition to cycling because of bicycle face dissipated in the 1890s as cycling was embraced by the upper class. The invention of this disease has been used as a historical example of failure of doctors to properly understand and treat women.


Impact of invention of the bicycle[edit]

Women gained a significant amount of independence with the invention of the bicycle.[1][2][3] This device gave them the freedom to travel outside the home of their own power.[1][2] Bicycle riding also necessitated more practical clothing for women and led to significant changes to female attire in society.[2][4] One individual from the time period watching female cyclists remarked, "It is hard to believe, that they were the same women who went out in the afternoon for the formal carriage parade."[4]

Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote that the bicycle was a tool which motivated women to gain strength and take on increased roles in society.[2] Susan B. Anthony stated in 1896: "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."[2]

19th century medicine[edit]

During the period of time shortly after women gained freedom from their homes through the ability to ride bicycles, physicians wrote in medical journals that females in particular would suffer permanently contorted faces if they continued this physical activity.[1] These doctors described this purported disease as "bicycle face".[1][4] It was argued the bicycle face resulted from continued strain to keep the device balanced while being ridden.[4] Critics of female cyclists characterized the bicycle face as including bulging eyes, and a tightened mandible.[5] The bicycle face on women was seen in direct contrast to the "tender and loving gaze" men expected from women during the time period.[6] In addition to bicycle face, physicians warned of maladies caused by cycling including tuberculosis and increased libido.[2]

An 1895 article in The Literary Digest reviewed literature from the time period which discussed the bicycle face, and noted that The Springfield Republican warned against excessive cycling by "women, girls, and middle-aged men".[7] Concerns about bicycle face with regard to female cyclists were detailed by medical doctor A. Shadwell in an 1897 article for the National Review in London titled "The hidden dangers of cycling".[8] His article was subsequently discussed and analyzed in The Advertiser.[9]

Bicycle enthusiasts disagreed with this medical assessment, and asserted that the physical activity was good to improve one's health and vitality.[4] Opposition to cycling on this basis dissipated midway through the 1890s as the activity was embraced by the upper-class.[4]


This pseudoscience has been cited by historians as an example of failures by medical doctors to understand and treat women appropriately and responsibly, including in the book Women's Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Swedan, Nadya (2001). Women's Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. p. xvii. ISBN 978-0834217317. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f Vivanco, Luis Antonio (2013). Reconsidering the Bicycle: An Anthropological Perspective on a New (old) Thing. Routledge. pp. 32–34. ISBN 978-0415503884. 
  3. ^ Aronson, Sidney H. (Mar 1952). "The Sociology of the Bicycle". Social Forces 20 (3): 305. doi:10.2307/2571596. Retrieved 1 June 2014. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f Herlihy, David V. (2006). Bicycle: The History. Yale University Press. pp. 270–273. ISBN 978-0300120479. 
  5. ^ Davis, Janet M. (2002). The Circus Age: Culture & Society Under the American Big Top. The University of North Carolina Press. p. 91. ISBN 978-0807853993. 
  6. ^ Dowling, Colette (2001). "Out of confinement". The Frailty Myth: Redefining the Physical Potential of Women and Girls. Random House Trade Paperbacks. ISBN 978-0375758157. 
  7. ^ "The 'Bicycle Face'". The Literary Digest 11 (19): 8 (548). 7 September 1895. 
  8. ^ Shadwell, A. (1 February 1897). "The hidden dangers of cycling". National Review (London). 
  9. ^ "The Intoxicating Bicycle". The Advertiser (Adelaide). 16 March 1897. p. 6. 

Further reading[edit]

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