Susan B. Anthony claimed that bicycling “has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world.” One bicycle on display at the History Colorado Center offers insight into the pedal-powered campaign for the women’s vote in Colorado.
Saturday, March 20, 2021, was the first day of spring, and Denverites were lucky enough to mark the occasion with a warm, sunny day. March in Colorado can have its mood swings— sometimes bringing historic snowstorms and unseasonably warm weather within the same week! Yet undeniable signs of spring are upon us. The tender green tips and bright yellow and purple blooms of daffodils, crocuses, and other bulbs are beginning to emerge. Birdsong echoes in the morning air. And more and more people are out and about in the city’s parks and on the sidewalks and streets, enjoying the weather by walking, running, or cycling.
While Denver is well-known for its residents’ interest in pursuits like skiing and snowboarding, cycling is also a top outdoor activity. With the availability of bike share programs like Jump, and the appeal of an outdoor mode of transportation in the midst of a global pandemic, it’s no surprise that Denverites are taking to two wheels more frequently. In fact, last year, Denver made the list of the top ten most bike friendly cities in the country, ranking eighth among more than 500 cities studied.
But this is not the first time that cycling has offered such freedom of mobility in the city. In 1900, an estimated 40 percent of Denver residents had a bicycle—and many of those cyclists were women. In 2017, while researching the women’s Mauro Special bicycle that’s now on display in Zoom In: The Centennial State in 100 Objects at the History Colorado Center, I got to explore how women cyclists contributed to the state’s women’s suffrage campaign and how bicycle manufacturers adapted their products—and how women themselves even adapted their fashion choices—to embrace female cycling.
Colorado suffragists like Ellis Meredith rode bicycles door-to-door as they campaigned for the right to vote, symbolically linking the freedom of movement via two wheels to the freedom of political expression via the vote. Their efforts proved successful when women in Colorado earned the right to vote in 1893, making Colorado the first state in the nation where women won full suffrage through popular referendum. Susan B. Anthony, leader of the national women’s suffrage effort, underscored the relationship between the bicycle and the coming of the vote, saying in 1896 that bicycling “has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world.” The Cycling West, which began publishing in 1893 in Denver and San Francisco, encouraged women’s participation in cycling, not only for the social freedom it engendered, but for their health. The magazine published reports from doctors attesting to the fact that cycling was good exercise for women. In fact, the publication assured readers that women were more ideally suited than men for cycling, particularly over long distances like the popular century ride—one hundred miles or more in one day.
The Cycling West also provided fashion tips for women who were beginning to ride bicycles. One column suggested that women should wear ankle-length skirts and avoid restrictive garments like corsets. Traditional garments made riding bicycles more difficult, and even dangerous; corsets were known to cause fainting even when a woman wasn’t partaking in physical exertion, and long skirts risked getting caught up in the bicycle’s wheels or gears, threatening a crash. Local cyclist Dora Rinehart echoed the calls for modifications to Victorian-era clothing. Rinehart was known for her long-distance rides, and she complained that when cycling in a traditional skirt, “you get too much of the dress on the one side of the wheel, and you do not get enough of the dress on the other side.” She and many other women cyclists in Denver favored split skirts, which were much more practical.
While women were modifying their clothes to enable a more pleasant cycling experience, bicycle manufacturers were also considering how to make it easier for women to enjoy the ride. The Mauro Special in History Colorado’s collection embodies some of these adaptations. The bicycle's frame curves down toward the ground in the middle, a feature known as the “step-through” style, leaving room for the long dresses of the era. There is a wooden fender on top of the back wheel with netting attached to both sides. This safety net helped prevent women’s skirts from getting tangled in the spokes of the wheels. In addition to these safety features, the decoration of this bike reveals that it was clearly intended for female riders. Delicate floral patterns appear on the frame and the handlebars.
These details are clearly visible on the bicycle now, but that wasn’t the case when we first pulled this object out of collections storage to consider it for display in the exhibition Zoom In. At first, the bicycle appeared to be a dull olive green, and the netting described above was frayed and disconnected from the fender in places. I spoke with History Colorado’s exhibits and loans registrar, Kimberly Kronwall, to learn more about how she and two fine art conservators transformed the bicycle from its dingy, damaged state to its gleaming, like-new condition.
Q: What was the first step you took to get the bicycle ready for display?
A: In order to make sure an artifact is stable and in the best condition possible for display, we sometimes have it examined by a conservator to determine what, if any, repairs need to be made. In this case, one conservator examined the bicycle and outlined physical repairs she could complete, such as mending the netting and cleaning the grime. Additionally, she recommended we enlist a paintings conservator to seal the existing paint once it had been cleaned, and to fill in any lost paint where possible, using historically accurate colors.
Q: How long did the conservation of the bicycle take, and how many people were involved?
A: The two conservators tag-teamed the repair and restoration of the bicycle, while I helped clean it, once the conservators established a safe protocol that would not damage the historical artifact. Between cleaning, repairing the damaged pieces, and inpainting where the design had deteriorated, the process took two weeks.
Q: What part of the conservation process made the biggest difference in how the bicycle looks today?
A: When we first decided to display it, the bicycle looked like it was dark green. When the conservators examined it, though, they discovered that the bicycle had originally been painted a beautiful shade of eggshell blue! The discoloration occurred from the accumulation of years of dust and grime, as well as the yellowing of a clear coat of varnish or lacquer that had been applied to the bike when it was first painted. Removing these layers of dirt and yellowed material completely transformed the bicycle. Restoring the original color really helped to make the artifact feel more modern and relevant—you could almost imagine riding it today!
Q: Were there any additional repairs or modifications you made to the bicycle before it went on display?
A: The bicycle’s back tire was missing. In order to make it appear whole, and to match the ribbed rubber tire on the front wheel, we created a reproduction wheel. Any time we add a modern reproduction element to a historical artifact, we want to ensure that it can be fully removed and doesn’t damage the object in any way. In this case, we decided to use black, ribbed tights and chalk pastels to mimic the same color, texture, and pattern of the bike’s front wheel. This modification is for display only, and was noted in all of the object’s records in our collection. That way, future registrars and curators can decide to display the object in its exact condition, or to display it looking whole, like we chose to do.
The next time you’re at the History Colorado Center, stop in to Zoom In to see this unique artifact for yourself. I hope that when you do, you admire the care taken to preserve this object as much as I do. Or, the next time you hop on your bicycle, thank Colorado’s female cyclists who paved the way for us all to enjoy the freedom of the scenery whizzing past as we pedal our two wheels in the fresh, spring air.
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