Harmon’s Histories: The devil rode into Missoula on a bicycle and women took flight

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

Women were wearing “indecent” bloomers in public. Church attendance was dropping. Piano playing even declined. Evangelists declared Satan was to blame.

A new “craze” was sweeping the nation in the 1890s. More and more people were spending their only free day – Sunday – riding bicycles!

Remember those five young men we told you about last week, attempting a Missoula to Hamilton bike ride?

They acknowledged their shortcomings, choosing to ride on the holy day, drinking whiskey and beer from the early morning into the evening, “using language not becoming to a gentleman (and admitting they) had no business to pass a church on Sunday morning.”

That was just a hint of the impact the bicycle had on society, especially women. Those two wheels offered a new freedom.

Women were now able to go on unchaperoned dates. Why, women might even be able to elope on a bike!

(UM Archives and Special Collections, Mansfield Library)

Protestant leaders across the country saw cycling “as a significant threat to morality.”

Atlanta Baptist minister, Dr. J. B. Hawthorne, declared, “When the bicycle woman realizes her disastrous mistake and begins to suffer from the unenviable notoriety of her indelicate and unwomanly conduct, she says that it was her love of exciting pleasure that tempted her to take the false step.

“She is mistaken. It was not the love of pleasure, but a personal devil. Satan entered into her that he might degrade and get her picture into the columns of some ‘looking glass’ paper and make her the subject of obscene comment in every clubhouse and gathering of filthy sensationalists.”

The Reverend Thomas B. Gregory admonished his parishioners that “the bicycle is a menace to the mind. It annihilates the reading habit. The reading rooms and libraries, as compared with what they used to be, are deserted. It is a menace to health. It provokes heart disease, kidney affections, consumption and all sorts of nervous disorders!”

And that’s not all. “The Women’s Rescue League of Boston even claimed that, following the closing of brothels, prostitutes were riding bikes to reach their clients!”

Not everyone was over-reacting. A few religious leaders attempted to coop cycling into a Christian movement, as “a way to build courage, determination, and strength (achieving) the very highest, fullest and completest physical, mental and spiritual culture.”

“The girls I left behind me,” with Rattlesnake Falls in the background. (UM Archives and Special Collections, Mansfield Library)

The Los Angeles Herald, in 1897, reported on the positive aspects of bicycling, reprinting an article from the Century, quoting Dr. A. L. Benedict:

“The wheel is affording a wholesome outlet for energies that would otherwise be wasted in frivolity or actual dissipation, and in elevating the physical is also elevating the moral tone of the youth of our land.”

The Omaha Daily Bee illustrated “the battle that is now being waged,” through the eyes of two women.

“Miss Frances Willard says she has found a high moral use in the bicycle, saying, ‘She who succeeds in gaining the mastery of such a creature as the bicycle will gain the mastery of life, and by exactly the same methods and characteristics.’

(UM Archives and Special Collections, Mansfield Library)

“On the other hand, Mrs. Lynn Lynton says, ‘One of the lowest crazes of the ages is that of the bicycle. Walking, riding, skating and dancing I can understand as fit exercise for the vigorous and young.

“‘But cycling seems to be such a doubtful kind of amusement – such a queer cross between the treadmill and the tight rope – demanding such a constant strain of attention to keep your balance, with such a monotonous and restricted action of the limbs, as to render it a work of penance rather than of pleasure.’”

Penance or pleasure, the “bicycle craze” was relatively short-lived – spanning only a couple of decades (the transition period between the horse and the automobile).

It would be another hundred years before it would make its resurgence into today’s modern world of healthy exercise, bike lanes and environmental conscientiousness.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.