In My Park Book, published in 1898, Annie Nathan Meyer gleefully recorded the joys of spinning through Central Park, New York on her bicycle in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Among the pioneers of women’s cycling, she learned to ride in Central Park, deriving great satisfaction from “the spice and freedom [of] doing something in the face of society’s frown.” Having “invented a perfectly satisfactory wheeling costume, made over from a discarded skirt,” she enjoyed on long spins through the park with her husband, prominent New York physician Alfred Meyer. They often chose to ride in the early morning hours “before the advent of the watering cart” and “the parade,” i.e. the throngs of well-dressed folk strolling along the park’s paths later in the day, some of whom viewed bicycling as an unladylike pursuit.
Annie Meyer’s little book celebrating Central Park is one of my inspirations for starting this blog on Golden Gate Park. She wrote so movingly about being in the park at that time, seeing deer “gravely meditating but a step from the cobblestones of the avenue . . . the whir of the partridge burst[ing] from the ground . . sunlight filtering through the quivering birches . . . the odor of the moist, warm earth.”
In the chapter on cycling in the park, she recounts how the first women cyclers felt obliged to ride skillfully, “for a woman to have been seen wobbling helplessly about, or trying to run up a score of broken lamp-posts, would scarcely have conduced to popularize the sport for her sex.” But, for her, “a Nature-lover who has always sat at her feet — the wheel is merely a delightful means of getting there” . . . unlike some of her friends, who “have an entirely different theory of wheeling (incidentally they have a different theory of life in general). To them the wheel is an end in itself; its charm lies solely in swift riding.”
Whatever the motivation, women took up bicycling in large numbers, until it became unremarkable to see them riding. But the following picture, from the San Francisco Public Library historical photograph collection, is from 1933 and presents a puzzle. It carries the following inscription on the back:
“A tremendous revival of bicycle riding by men and women of all ages has San Francisco traffic police somewhat non-plussed. Much of the riding is in picturesque Golden Gate Park, and the job of keeping cyclists off equestrian paths, out of the way of automobiles and on the right side of the bicycle path, is more trouble than restoring 10 kids, lost at the playgrounds to their parents. Miss Sally Emerson and Miss Jean Williams insist upon knowing why Park Policeman Arthur Dolan arrested them–and he is hard put to explain the wording of the ancient ordinance.”