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The (Dreaded) Bicycle Face of the 1890s

The mid-1880s US introduction to the safety bicycle catapulted the nascent mode of transportation from fad to full-blown institution. Each day scores of new bicyclists took to the wheel for the first time. Proponents lauded the freedom and health benefits, but others, perhaps unsure of how to handle the bicycling boom, railed against biking and bicyclists. By the mid-1890s, detractors began warning of the dangerous ramifications of using the recently-favored means of travel.

Dread was their weapon of choice. Opponents cautioned that prolonged, unsafe cycling would inevitably lead to ‘bicycle face.’ This disorder impacted bicyclists. It came about from tension on the face from a curved-back, stooped riding position. Other factors were fear of injury, overexertion, and the constant stress of keeping balance while riding. The strain targeted particular sets of muscles and eventually led to an unhealthy, pale look. Sufferers complained of headaches; had wide and excited eyes; strained lines along the mouth; a clenched jaw, and focusing on facial features “toward the center” of their faces. Many believed it was incurable.

As bicycling continued to grow in popularity, concerns from critics, many times backed by the medical community, became louder. They noted that sufferers of ‘bicycle face’ were likely to pass these features to their yet-to-be-born children, potentially changing the countenance of future generations. Medical professionals believed that female riders were more apt to suffer from ‘bicycle face.’ However, unlike some of the other bicycle-related maladies seemingly created to explicitly dissuade women from riding a bicycle, this particular one affected both men and women bicyclists. The disorder only affected adults of the era that had taken up bicycling for the first time, and becoming more adept presumably lessened the risk. Also, modest riders needn’t worry, but scorchers beware.

Members of the medical-community-at-large supported the discovery, but opinions within the field differed significantly. Some considered the disorder a byproduct of nervous exhaustion, while others pointed to stress related to scorching and poor posture. Not everyone believed that ‘bicycle face’ was unique to the bicycle, noting that horseriding and other kinds of physical activities produced similar facial expressions. Others praised the health benefits of bicycling, questioning the idea of an impending permanent physical change on a rider regardless of their speed. They considered the whole thing to be nothing short of ridiculous.

Despite the lack of consensus, there were calls to make significant changes to the bicycle to protect bicyclists from the disorder. One improvement focused on the handlebars, pushing to have them raised high enough to force the rider to remain in an upright position during the entirety of their ride. This posture would keep them from scorching and limit potential stress and physical strain. Another targeted a bicyclist’s constant worry associated with balancing their bike, pushing for companies to make improvements to the tricycle with the hope that it would then overtake the bicycle as the dominant mode of transportation. Neither came to be.

After the turn of the century, as the automobile began its climb to become the country’s primary mode of transportation, concern for ‘bicycle face’ began to wane. Infrastructure improvements over the previous decade had mostly separated bikes and pedestrians, and over time bicycles couldn’t match the speed of the ‘horseless carriages.’ Eventually, the once dreaded ‘bicycle face’ gave way to ‘automobile face.’ The condition was similar, but included a constant of being the “innocent cause of destruction to others.” It was, in effect, an amped-up version of the same thing, only caused by the use of an automobile instead of a bicycle.

Even though ‘bicycle face’ is often mentioned in a slew of nineteenth-century publications, some considered prominent; it’s hard to take it seriously. Because the condition and its impact were so varied, the disorder seems like no more than fear-based pablum. Some blamed speed and posture, while others noted constant strain associated with keeping one’s balance. There was even a prevailing belief that it was caused by bicycling on Sunday. Its permanence was also called into question, while some believed there was no cure, others felt recovery would come after spending time away from the bicycle.

‘Bicycle face’ was one of many bicycle-related disorders, all seemingly created to scare potential bicyclists away from bicycling. In nearly every case, they disproportionately targeted women, likely to stifle growing feminist reform movements, but men weren’t immune to the silliness.

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