the bicycle girl: lights, bells and whistles

(from Picture Collection, The Branch Libraries, NYPL; Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

This illustration shows the bicycle path from Prospect Park, Brooklyn, to Coney Island in 1896.  Bicycling had become such a popular sport nationwide by the end of the century that cities were hard pressed to control the traffic.  Many municipalities passed ordinances regulating bicycle speed, requiring lights at night and horns or bells for safety.  In Golden Gate Park bicycles were barred from certain roads in 1886.  Some special paths were built for bicyclists, but they protested that they should be allowed the same freedoms on the roads that were extended to riders of horses and carriages. (Raymond Clary, The Making of Golden Gate Park:  The Early Years, 1865-1906 p.74-76)  I never cease to wonder at how much has changed in our great urban parks since their inception, yet how much remains the same!

The following poem, published in the San Francisco Examiner on Dec. 8, 1895, gives a sense of what women bicyclists were up against in the nineteenth century.

The Bicycle Girl

The Bicycle Girl, oh, the Bicycle Girl

With a spinnaker skirt and a sleeve like a furl;

Such a freak on the wheel, such a sight on the tire

I am certain I never will love or admire.


Her leggings are brown and her hat is the same,

“I say there, old man, can you tell me the name?”

But this is absurd, for I never will like

A girl who goes whizzing about on a bike.


The Bicycle Girl, oh the Bicycle Girl,

She wears on her forehead a dream of a curl

And the sound of her bell and the hum of her wheel

Is enough to make any man’s cranium reel.


The Bicycle Girl, oh the Bicycle Girl,

She has lips like a ruby in settings of pearl;

And why did she smile as she lightly spun by?

Does she think I could love her?  No, never, not I.


It’s foolish, I know, though I never have tried,

Confound it, I really believe I could ride.

For the Bicycle Girl, oh, the Bicycle Girl

She has tangled my heart in her mystical whirl.



About fromthethicket

I'm a landscape historian and professor emeritus of landscape architecture, UC Davis. I live in San Francisco.
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1 Response to the bicycle girl: lights, bells and whistles

  1. RKB says:

    That’s delightful! Thanks for publishing this. It follows nicely on your earlier piece on bicycles in Golden Gate Park.

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