How the Bicycle Emancipated Women

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On this date in 1920, Congress ratified the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote. To mark the occasion, we're re-running Chris Connolly's piece on the role of the bicycle in the women's movement.
Susan B. Anthony once said, "I think [bicycling] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world." A woman on a bicycle, the equal rights champion observed, presents "the picture of free and untrammeled womanhood."

Susan and her fellow 19th-century women had been severely trammeled their entire lives. Forget the glass ceiling; women in those days were trapped under the glass floor. Battles like "equal pay for equal work" were decades away. The Victorian woman's cause was more along the lines of, "We'd like to leave the house, sometimes "¦ please "¦ if it isn't too much trouble."

The fashion for women at that time tended toward helplessness and frailty. Consider the image of a Victorian lady: She's sickly and pale, relies on men for everything, and occasionally peeks out from behind an ornamental fan (usually before touching her wrist to her forehead and fainting). The frailty of a "lady" was such that preventing females from studying, working, voting and doing much of anything at all seemed a rational measure.

Obviously, there must have been some inclination that at least part of this frailty was socially projected. A gentleman taking a trip to the market must have come across dozens of hardworking women from the lower classes. In fact, he may have employed one such woman to support the proper ladies at his home while they gossiped, blushed and passed out. But men didn't see those hardworking females as proper ladies. A proper lady was seen as weak, defenseless and entirely dependent on men.

Seven Pounds of Underwear
Clearly, women haven't undergone any fundamental alterations of their physiological makeup in the last hundred years, so what allows them to live the robust, fainting-free lifestyles they do today?

Foremost, the Victorian lady rarely exercised or engaged in physical activity, which left her poorly conditioned. Secondly, it was fashionable to be frail. Just as American women in the 1950s were expected to become June Cleaver and young girls today aspire to Gwen Stefani-like independence, the Victorian woman was expected to adopt certain behaviors.

The third contributing factor to the frailty of the Victorian lady was clothing. Their garments were typically thick, exaggerating the female form while concealing the flesh. Curves were accentuated by tightly laced corsets, which, when coupled with long and heavy underskirts, greatly limited women's ability to move or even breathe. (Hence much of the fainting.)

This attire was not only intended to restrict women physically, but morally, too. In a society where the accidental exposure of an ankle took on the pornographic stature of a lap dance, such dress was required to protect a lady's virtue. In fact, the term "loose" originated to describe a woman who went uncorseted, while "strait-laced" women obeyed societal dictates.

Eventually, some women began to take a stand, and, in 1888, a letter published by The Rational Dress Society—a group of women who argued for reasonable clothing—stated, "the maximum weight of under-clothing (without shoes) approved by The Rational Dress Society, does not exceed seven pounds."

Seven pounds of underwear? An improvement? That's more than any jog bra in the world. Clearly, women needed to change their underwear. And that's where the bicycle came in.

Bloomers: A Gateway Garment?

The Gateway Garment
By the late 1880s, the bicycle's popularity really took off. For instance, in 1880, a group of early cycling advocates called the League of American Wheelmen had a membership of 40; by 1898, its ranks had bloated to nearly 200,000. Cycling was so popular that in 1896 The New York Journal of Commerce estimated bicycling was costing theaters, restaurants and other businesses over 100 million dollars per year. Considering the way the bicycle was exploding in popularity, it was only natural that women should get in on the act.

Two ladies pose in riding habits
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Before bicycles came along, the horse was the best means of individual travel. Of course, women's access to horses was limited. Horses were dangerous and difficult to control; conventional medical wisdom suggested that riding them could damage a woman's genitals. Women were supposed to ride sidesaddle, with both legs hanging off one side. In that unnatural position, women were unable to ride for long distances, reinforcing the idea that they shouldn't be riding at all.
Bicycles, by comparison, were easy to manipulate. There was no reason a woman couldn't get on a bike and sedately pedal farther from her home than she'd ever been before. No reason, that is, other than her cumbersome attire and the convention that if she did so, she'd either have her virtue corrupted or die of exhaustion.

In order for women to take part in the new craze without becoming entangled in the bike's chain, they needed to wear shorter skirts or even (gasp!) bifurcated garments called bloomers. It was also necessary that they leave the house and exert themselves physically—all activities previously considered unladylike.

The severity of the outcry against women participating in these activities is proof of their effectiveness. The brave women who donned rational dress were criticized, denied access to public places and widely mocked in the media. A satirical poem in one U.S. paper, for instance, suggested bloomers were a sort of "gateway garment," the wearers of which might go on to participate in such dastardly pursuits as business or reading.

Female cyclists were often accosted verbally and physically as they rode. Emma Eades, one of the first women to ride a bike in London, was attacked with bricks and stones. Men and women alike demanded that she go home where she belonged and behave properly.

Many people feared that the unprecedented mobility the bicycle allowed women would corrupt them morally. In fact, a business called The Cyclist's Chaperon Association provided "gentlewomen of good social position to conduct ladies on bicycle excursions and tours." These gentlewomen had to satisfy strict criteria to qualify as guardians of virtue. They were married ladies, widows or unmarried ladies over 30. They needed three personal references, two from ladies of unquestionable social position, and another from a clergyman of the church—all this to protect women from becoming morally debased by their bikes.

Even in the face of this overwhelming social condemnation, cycling groups persevered and eventually wrought fundamental changes in society's view. Women did get out on their bikes and, to everyone's surprise, didn't faint or commit egregious moral atrocities. In fact, they discovered what everyone who rides a bike learns: It makes you more fit, more relaxed, and more aware. Women gained increased self-sufficiency, better physical conditioning, and, as a bonus, won some freedom from their restrictive clothing and its attendant social bonds.

The Vehicle of Women's Lib
The 1900 United States Census Report, released more than 20 years after the introduction of the bicycle, said, "Few articles ever used by man have created so great a revolution in social conditions as the bicycle." For women, this held especially true.

The bicycle continues to endear itself to free thinkers. Even today, it's the centerpiece of many reform movements. Jacquie Phelan, for instance, is a feminist mountain biker who founded WOMBATS, the Women's Mountain Bike and Tea Society. A three-time world champion voted one of the 10 best mountain bikers of all time, Phelan is a tireless warrior in the fight for equality. She advocates two prices for bikes based on the 59 cents women make to every dollar earned by a man. (She was inspired to take action when she finished sixth in a race and was mistakenly given the $400 dollar men's prize instead of the $42 allotted to the female finisher.)

As the bicycle continues to lend itself to causes of all kinds, it is important to remember its first battle. Liberating is a word easily associated with cycling. Flying down a tree-lined road with the wind in your face is certainly a liberating experience, but for early female cyclists, a simple bike ride was liberating in a much more significant way.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine, available wherever brilliant (or lots of) magazines are sold.
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Hard Sell: A History of the Pet Rock

Amazon
Amazon

You may have heard the story of the Pet Rock, the Mexican beach stone that could be purchased in bulk for less than a penny, retailed for $3.95, and made inventor Gary Dahl a millionaire during a kind of novelty gift hysteria in late 1975. But Dahl didn’t really get rich off of the rock.

He got rich off of a cardboard box.

Dahl was working as a freelance advertising copywriter in California that year when, while having drinks at a bar with friends, the conversation turned to the destructive nature of pets. Dogs and cats ruined furniture. Worse, they required constant attention, from being walked to being fed to cleaning up after them. Dahl said that he didn’t have to worry about any of that because he had a “pet rock.”

It was, of course, a joke. And it got a laugh. But Dahl decided there could be more to it than that. He went home and began writing an owner’s manual for this hypothetical pet rock, which detailed how best to handle it, the tricks it could perform (“play dead” being the most popular), and how it could remain a faithful companion due to its “long life span.” The gag was not so much the rock itself but the way it was presented. In addition to the manual, Dahl conceived of a cardboard box with air holes that resembled the kind used by pet shops. It also bore a passing resemblance to a McDonald's Happy Meal container.

 

Dahl's motivation in making a serious effort to monetize his pet rock idea was due in large part to his precarious financial situation at the time—he was struggling to keep up with his bills. He recruited George Coakley and John Heagerty, two colleagues, to come on as investors. They both signed on, with Coakley investing $10,000—a not-inconsiderable sum in 1975, especially when the intention was to sell virtually worthless rocks.

The Pet Rock packaging is pictured
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dahl, however, knew what he was marketing. Like chattering teeth, the Hula Hoop, and other fads, the Pet Rock was the beneficiary of good timing. Vietnam had ended but Watergate was still fresh; the country’s mood was slightly downcast, and Dahl believed people would see the inane nature of the Pet Rock and recognize the humor of it. He boxed the rocks with the manual and packed them in excelsior, which may be best known as comic book legend Stan Lee’s catchphrase but also means a softwood shaving pile meant for protecting fragile items. The rocks were purchased from a local sand and gravel company, which sourced them from Mexico’s Rosarita Beach. Dahl debuted the rock at a gift show in San Francisco in August of 1975, then waited for a reaction.

He got one. People understood the appeal right away and he began taking orders. Neiman Marcus wanted 1000 rocks. Bloomingdale’s later signed on. Newsweek did a story with a picture, which spread the word. Dahl had retail and media credibility for what was superficially a nonsense product. His bar joke was turning into a national phenomenon.

When the holiday season arrived, Dahl estimated he was selling up to 100,000 Pet Rocks a day. Ultimately, he would sell between 1.3 and 1.5 million of them within a period of just a few months. Coakley made $200,000 back on his initial $10,000 investment. Dahl gifted both Coakley and Heagerty with Mercedes. Making 95 cents in profit on each Pet Rock sold, Dahl earned over $1 million. He launched his own firm, Rock Bottom Productions, which was itself another joke. “You’ve reached Rock Bottom” is how the receptionist answered their phone.

 

The fad did not last—by definition, they’re not designed to—but Dahl was satisfied. His two investors were not; they "claimed they had received too small a share of the profits" and later sued Dahl for more revenue. After a judgment in the investors' favor, Dahl wrote them a six-figure check.

The Pet Rock is pictured
Amazon

There were attempts to prolong the life of the rock by offering a Bicentennial version in 1976—it had the American flag painted on it—and mail-order college degrees for them. Dahl sold Pet Rock T-shirts and Pet Rock shampoo. There were also copycat gifts, since Dahl could not really patent a rock. (He might have been able to obtain a utility patent because of the rock’s particular purpose as a companion, but he did not.) The humor was transient, however, and people had moved on.

Dahl had other ideas. There was the Official Sand Breeding Kit, which claimed to provide guidance on growing sand, and Canned Earthquake, which consisted of a coffee can that had a wind-up mechanism that caused it to jump around on a table. Neither was particularly successful. Dahl’s real passion, though, was buying and renovating a bar in Los Gatos, which he named Carrie Nation’s Saloon.

This was not without its problems, as people who believed they had the next Pet Rock would often stop by the bar to try and secure an audience with Dahl for his insight. Many times, their idea consisted of packaging bull or elephant excrement. There were also proposals to market a pet stick. Dahl had no patience for these inventors, believing the Pet Rock could not be duplicated. Later, he went back to advertising after taking what he described as an “eight-year vacation” following the success of his project.

The Pet Rock can still be found online, though it’s no longer Dahl’s business. He died in 2015. Of the unsold rocks he had left over at the end of the fad, he was indifferent. If they didn’t sell, he said, he would just use them to repave his driveway.

Submarine Expedition Reveals Parts of the Titanic Have Fully Decayed

NOAA/Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island
NOAA/Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island

In 1985, oceanographers Robert Ballard, Jean-Louis Michel, and their crew located the wreck of the RMS Titanic at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Images of the shipwreck have since become as iconic as photographs of the ocean liner taken before the 1912 tragedy. But the ruin's time in the ocean is limited. As part of an upcoming documentary, a crew of scientists carried out the first manned expedition to the wreck in 14 years and discovered the Titanic is rapidly decaying, BBC reports.

After it sank, the Titanic settled in two parts on the seafloor about 370 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. Most of the wreck is still intact, but a lot has changed since 2005, when it was last visited by a human-occupied submersible.

While working on a film for Atlantic Productions London, an exploration team from Triton Submarines visited the wreck five times over eight days and discovered that entire sections of the ship have disappeared. The starboard side of the officer's quarters has deteriorated, and the captain's bathtub is totally gone. The deck house on the same side and the sloping lounge roof of the bow are also on the brink of collapse, according to the crew.

Unlike other artifacts and historic sites, there's no way to preserve the wreckage of the Titanic for future generations. Churning ocean currents, corrosive salt, and metal-eating bacteria will continue to break down the steel behemoth until it becomes part of the sea. Some experts estimate that by 2030, it's likely that no part of the wreck will remain.

Whether that projection is off by years or decades, these findings suggest that every new team that visits the Titanic may find something different than the team before them. On this most recent expedition, the Triton Submarines exploration team was able to film the wreck in 4K for the first time. That footage may end up being some of the last ever captured of many elements of the ship.

[h/t BBC]

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