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In the Archives: Bloomers and Bicycles

The Ann Arbor Chronicle: In the Archives: Bloomers and Bicycles

Controversy over riding on sidewalks is nothing new

BY LAURA BIENJANUARY 31, 2010

Editor’s note: At January’s meeting of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board, Ann Arbor’s mayor suggested that the DDA’s transportation committee bring a recommendation to the board to take a position on bicycling on Ann Arbor’s downtown sidewalks.

The fight to keep bikes off of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti sidewalks dates back to the first appearance over a century ago of what many perceived to be “infernal machines.”

O.E. Thompson was Ypsilanti’s leading seller of bicycles. (Images link to higher resolution files.)
The 1876 Ann Arbor city charter contains no mention of bicycles – it wouldn’t be until two years later that A. A. Pope manufactured the first bicycles in the U.S. The invention spread across the nation, threw city fathers into consternation as they scrambled for their city charters, and incited Ann Arbor’s “Bloomer War.”

It also inspired the creation of a nationwide organization of cyclists, the League of American Wheelmen. Its Michigan chapter’s 1897 edition of their “Road Book” recommended one 271.5-mile jaunt from Detroit to Chicago. Another route circled Lake Erie. The guidebook gave instructions for rides from Ann Arbor to Chelsea, Saline, Whitmore Lake, Pontiac, South Lyon and Dundee.

“Gravel roads will average as shown during entire riding season,” the book stated, “clay ones only in dry seasons.” The L.A.W. received a discount from 66 Michigan hotels ranging from Marquette to Coldwater. In Ann Arbor, the L.A.W.’s hotel was the American House (15% discount), and its Ypsilanti refuge was the Hawkins House (20%).

As the wheelmen helped popularize bicycling, they also warned of restrictions. “Among the principal cities in Michigan the following have bicycle ordinances,” stated the 1897 guidebook, naming 17 cities. “The following cities have no bicycle ordinances: Ann Arbor, Sturgis, and Ypsilanti. In the first two cities, sidewalk riding is not permitted, however.”

Ann Arbor did not yet have a bicycle ordinance, but in 1895, Section 8 of the city’s “Ordinance Relative to the Use of Streets and Public Places” forbade bikes on sidewalks. “No person shall cause or permit any horse, cow, sheep, hog, mule, or other similar animal, or any cart, carriage, dray, hack, cutter, or other vehicle under his or her care or control, to go upon any sidewalk … Nor shall any person make use of any sidewalk … for riding or going from place to place with bicycles or velocipedes.”

Baby carriages and biking children under six years old were permitted.

In November of 1897, the Ann Arbor city council considered and voted down “An Ordinance Relative to Bicycles.” Then in January of 1898, they passed “An Ordinance Relative to Bicycles.” But in March of 1898, they passed “An Ordinance to Repeal an Ordinance Entitled ‘An Ordinance Relative to Bicycles.’”

Ypsilanti was also wrestling with the troublesome vehicle. In 1897, city council passed “An Ordinance to Regulate the Use of Bicycles and Other Vehicles on the Public streets Within the Limits of the City of Ypsilanti.” It included:

Section 1. No bicycle or other vehicle shall be driven at a rate of speed to exceed eight miles per hour upon any street within the limits of the city of Ypsilanti.

Sec. 2. No person or persons shall ride any bicycle or other vehicle on the sidewalk within the limits of the city of Ypsilanti.

Sec. 8. Any person violating any of the provisions of this ordinance on conviction thereof shall be punished by a fine of not to exceed ten dollars together with the costs of prosecution or imprisonment in the county jail not to exceed twenty days, or both fine and imprisonment in the discretion of the court.

Just one year later, frustrated city fathers raised the ordinance violation fine from $10 ($260 today) to $50 ($1,280), and the possible jail time from 20 to 90 days. Other communities were having trouble, too. Local papers reported that Bay City’s Frank Baker had stolen a bike and was sentenced to three years in the Jackson prison. Compounding the problems, bicycle speeders and sidewalk-riders were difficult to nab. One exasperated resident, F. E. Quigley, wrote to the Ypsilanti Daily Press:

Would it not be a wise thing for this city to purchase a [car] for . . . the police department? For instance, if an officer is wanted in the vicinity of the Normal, a call is put in by phone. Perhaps the police department is closed, the chief being out on street duty . . . The call is of no avail. But suppose the chief is in his office; he attempts to respond by the present method, namely, by walking, and before he can arrive on the scene of action, there is no need of his services, the ‘bird’ having flown . . . Suppose a community is infested with men and boys riding their bicycles on the sidewalks? . . . [I]t seems that we ought to get modern service for the expenditure of money that is being made.

Not three days later, Ypsi police arrested high school student and sidewalk-biker Eugene Minor – the first bicycle crime to appear in Judge Martin Stadtmiller’s court dockets for the previous three years. Minor paid a fine of $3 plus court costs of 45 cents ($76 today). The next day, police arrested another sidewalk-biker, teamster Milton E. Gould, who also paid a fine.

It was a losing battle. Bicycles were by then such an integral part of Ypsi life that the high school and the local underwear factory both had special indoor bicycle storage rooms. Almost all of the underwear factory workers were women who, like men, bought their own bicycles. “Miss Florence Batchelder is the proud possessor of a Crawford bicycle,” noted the April 16, 1896 Ypsilantian.

Some men were less sanguine about women bicyclists and their penchant for wearing bike-friendly bloomers. University of Michigan medical men heard the question discussed at a September 1895 medical convention in Detroit. Dr. I. N. Love came from St. Louis, and spoke on “The Bicycle from a Medical Standpoint.”

“A study of the question of the wheel for women had resulted in an opinion favorable to its moderate use in cases of acute diseases,” Love said. “An hour’s wheeling three times a day is ample.” Love objected to bloomers, “which lessened the respect of mankind for womanhood and blemished the landscape.”

Just a week later in the biweekly journal Medical Century, an editorial addressed bloomers, as well as Love’s presentation:

Their tardy acceptance having been carefully traced to the fact of their hideousness, and now that the shop girls and their kith have accustomed the public eye to the sight … and now that the no better but some finer types of women have taken up and pushed on the shop girls’ initiative into a more graceful expression, the question begins to arise in the minds of the be-trousered populace, “What are they good for and how are they good for it?”

The costume was so beastly ugly that it became by virtue of that token “immodest” … every conscientiously artistic man was forced to put his hands before his face – and look through his fingers – when a bloomer girl went by …

[I]t was only the other day that the Mississippi Valley Medical Convention sat down in Detroit … We read that the doctors in conclave assembled in Detroit were brought to the verge of tears in their reluctant consideration of the ugly old things, and the author of the paper which had for its title “The Bicycle from a Medical Standpoint” grew mournfully sublime as he entered his protest against “such things” and pathetically entreated that the police be instructed to arrest women wearing them. ‘They weren’t pretty,” he sobbed, “and they weren’t nice nohow”.

However, the editorial grudgingly concluded that bloomers were conducive to women’s exercise.

The difficulty of biking in bulky skirts, let alone a corset, led to one UM student’s rebellion, and ultimately, the “Rational Dress Movement,” which advocated less elaborate and constrictive women’s clothing.

The May 1895 edition of the monthly magazine The Bachelor of Arts wrote:

Miss [Edna] Day, a junior, wears bloomers when she rides a bicycle, as all women do who choose. But she can’t ride a bicycle all the time, and finding it an inconvenience to change her raiment from hour to hour she fell into the habit of wearing bloomers around her boardinghouse.

Mrs. Eames, who keeps the boardinghouse, is not a ‘new woman,’ but one of the older fashioned sort, who believes in skirts. She told Miss Day that bloomers did not ‘go’ in her house, so Miss Day compromised and agreed to wear bloomers only when she rode her bicycle. But Miss Brown of the Medical School cried ‘tyranny!’ when she heard of it, and put her bloomers right on and sallied forth into the street, and declared war. Some of the professors’ wives who ride bicycles sided with her, and declared it to be the constitutional right of every woman to wear bloomers with or without bicycles whenever she would.

Then Mrs. Eames rose up and declared that she would have no bloomers worn about her house if she lost every bloomering boarder she had! Now there is war in Ann Arbor.

The Bachelor’s opinion is that only pretty women should wear bloomers at any time.

The bloomer furor eventually resolved itself, and a century later, Ypsilanti uneventfully banned sidewalk biking in a small downtown area. But in larger and busier Ann Arbor, where the sidewalk question currently has proponents on both sides as feisty as Edna Day and company, the city likely has in store a “bloomering” fight.