Women's Movement Went Ahead on Two Wheels

Tthe cover of an Acme Manufacturing Company brochure featuring a woman in bicycling attire.

The bicycle is much more than an enjoyable means of transportation. The bicycle had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world,” according to Susan B. Anthony.

When someone is asked to describe what happened during the Victorian era, they more than likely will acknowledge the Second Industrial Revolution or the domination of the Republican Party. Although these were very important in the formation of what America is today, the women’s suffrage movement is also a defining factor of the Victorian era.

The Victorian era was characterized by strict gender roles that did not allow for much overlap in the activities of men and women. Women, for the most part, did not drive vehicles, which in turn prevented them from participating in many activities, such as political rallies or social organizations. The bicycle allowed women, especially those who could not afford the expense of horses, to expand their horizons and freedoms.

The first safety bicycles appeared in the late 1870s. Safety bicycles had equally sized wheels and a chain drive which transferred power from the pedal to the rear wheel, making them much easier to operate than high-wheel bicycles. These safety bicycles allowed women to ride with ease and by the 1890s, the so-called “cycling craze” had taken off in the United States.

As cycling’s popularity exploded, so did newfound freedoms for women. Women across the country were breaking out of their traditional roles of wife and mother, and becoming politically and socially active. “The new women,” as the term came to be known, saw themselves as equal to men.

Victorian standards required women to be pure and always display proper etiquette. Many men believed their masculinity was threatened by these new freedoms women gained from cycling. Men were concerned that women with political freedom would become corrupt, since women were believed to be too emotional and therefore incapable of making sound political decisions. Women’s path to moral destruction, many men believed, was paved with the bicycle.

There was one brave lady who decided to turn every notion of female propriety on its ear. Her name was Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, a strong, brash, and charismatic immigrant from Latvia. On June 27, 1894, she embarked upon a fifteen month journey around the globe on her 42 pound Columbia bicycle, leaving behind her husband and three young children. She supported herself on her trek by advertising for businesses on her bicycle and person. She also gave lectures on her experiences in various cities as she passed through on her odyssey.

In February of this year, the Boyertown Museum acquired an 1898 Acme Pennant Model 32 women’s bicycle, which is very similar to the safety bicycle that Annie used to start her journey. The Museum’s current temporary exhibit, “On Merit Alone: The Story of Acme” features this bicycle as well as an 1898 Acme men’s bicycle and two Acme motor vehicles. The exhibit tells the story of the Acme Manufacturing Company of Reading, Pennsylvania, as well as the bicycle’s role in fueling the women’s suffrage movement in the 1890s.

The last day for this exhibit is Saturday, August 31, the same as the 48th Annual Duryea Day. Take advantage of this opportunity to learn more about women and cycling, as well as Acme’s beautiful automobiles. Admission to the Museum is included in your Duryea Day admission. A trolley will be on hand all day to give free rides between Boyertown Community Park and the Museum, so hop on and take a ride back in time.

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