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From the Schofield Letters: The “Wheeling” Craze of the 1890s

Yates Past - June 2008

I am thoroughly enjoying my project involving the letters of Yates County’s Admiral Frank Schofield and his family. What started out as “Fridays with Frank” two years ago at the Oliver House has become “Fridays with Frank, Claribel (his wife), May (his sister), Charlie (his brother-in-law) and George and Belle (his parents)”. What I enjoy most are the different types of history that I’m dealing with - local, national, international, social, political, military, economic, and diplomatic. A good example of the social history that I run into is the “wheeling” craze of the late 1890s.

Bicycles had been around throughout most of the 19th Century, but they were big, heavy, and difficult to ride. It required a large degree of strength and athleticism to be a “wheelman”. Around 1890, however, there were several technical improvements made on the bicycle which quickly brought it into the mainstream of American life. Chain drive to the rear wheel made the machine much easier to power. The pneumatic tire and softer saddles made the ride more comfortable. Mass production and competition brought the price down within reach of the growing middle class. Over three hundred companies manufactured more than a million bicycles in 1896. The “wheel” (as the bicycle was called back then) caught on with women. Such prominent females as Susan B. Anthony and Frances Willard got caught up in the “craze” and they extolled the health benefits for women and the liberating influences of the bicycle. Corsets and bustles just wouldn’t do on a bicycle.

The first in the Schofield family to acquire a wheel was Frank while on his European cruise, 1895-1896. He was an Ensign at that point in his career and kept his bicycle on board his ship, the USS Marblehead, and went for long rides while anchored in port. In May of 1895, he rode his bicycle over the mountains from Beirut to Damascus in Syria, a distance of about fifty miles. He knew that it would please his very religious mother back home in Penn Yan to have her son ride “the Damascus road”. That July, while anchored at Copenhagen, he rode out into the Danish countryside where he met a girl walking along a country road that he had met two years earlier in the Danish West Indies (today the Virgin Islands). In his younger days, wherever Frank went it seems he ran into a girl he knew. His letters recorded long bicycle rides in Ceylon, Guam, and the Philippines. Concerned about his wife Claribel’s health, he encouraged her to buy a wheel to ride while she studied art in Paris in 1896. He told her not to buy a French wheel because they were slow and heavy. He suggested she buy an American made bicycle; a Waverly, a Columbia, or a Rambler. She found them far too expensive in Paris but made arrangements for a friend who was coming to visit her to buy one in Maryland and bring it over on the ship. When she told Frank about it in a letter, he wrote back: “Buy yourself a good bicycle suit. There is one point however I want to give you my opinion on and that is the women’s style of dress. Stick to feminine apparel and I’ll stick to you....but if you get “advanced” in your ideas about bicycle costumes, there will be serious discord in the family.” He was referring to pantaloons or bloomers which made some women objects of ridicule. What she decided on was a long skirt with matching trousers to wear under it in case the wind should blow her skirt up while riding . Once Claribel got her wheel, she rode it all over Paris. She discovered that she had to be very careful on the streets. There was a law in Paris that if a bicyclist ran into a carriage on the streets, the bicyclist had to pay the driver of the carriage ten francs. That caused carriage drivers to try to run into people on bicycles, but Claribel was careful.
In May of 1897, Frank’s sister, May Schofield Avery, wrote to her parents from Brooklyn: “I must tell you the wonderful news. We have wheels!!! Two Victors....beautiful wheels, first class in every respect. We just hug each other every time that we realize that we actually have them. We talk about nothing else at the table.” May bought into the health benefits of wheeling as she reported to “Ma”.....”It keeps my bowels as regular as clockwork.”

It was critically important what one wore while wheeling. May’s “wheeling outfit” consisted of what she called a short skirt (mid-calf) over a pair of trousers, with the hem of the skirt pinned to the trousers in case a breeze blew it up. She joked about wearing the pants in the family. She topped the outfit off with a tam o’shanter. When she went home to Penn Yan to visit her parents, she took her wheel along on the train. May caused a bit of a stir in Penn Yan because the skirt on her “wheeling outfit” was a bit shorter than the locals were used to. In a letter to her husband Charlie back in Brooklyn she wrote that she might lengthen her wheeling skirt as “I don’t want to shock people and Louise says its positively indecent. The girls here ride in long skirts with petticoats and drawers and ankles are not supposed to exist.” Charlie wrote back: “Be sure your skirt is short enough. When you ride and bend forward, it might catch in the chain. There was a woman nearly killed here yesterday getting her skirt caught and threw her clear over the handle -bars. You be sure your skirt can’t possibly catch -- don’t take any chance. You should let Penn Yan stare and leave the skirt as it is. I would tell that “yap” Louise that she has no idea of the metropolitan style in ladies’ skirts for the wheel.” In another letter, Charlie described his own “wheeling outfit”: ”I got me a pair of breeches with black and white checks. They are not very wooly in quality but are strongly made and look real well. I also have a cap to match and a pair of black socks with white stripes on the calf....so I guess I will look nice when I wear the suit.” He must have been quite a sight, but then I look at modern bicyclists in their multicolored Spandex outfits and maybe things today aren’t much different.

What impressed me the most about May and Charlie were the distances they rode on their wheels. They thought nothing of an evening ride after a day at “business” in Manhattan of 20 to 30 miles around Brooklyn down through Prospect Park to Coney Island. On occasion, they went on 50 mile rides out onto Long Island. The ultimate however was when they took their wheels to Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania by train to visit Charlie’s parents and rode them all the way back to Brooklyn! - 150 miles through Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains over three days. Charlie reported in one letter that he had ridden 860 miles in two months. Now that’s a “craze”.

Grace and Bessie Trimmer of Penn Yan rest with their “wheels” near the Ark on Keuka Lake (ca. 1899)

by Rich MacAlpine


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