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.)
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.