This photograph from 1933 shows Minneapolis cyclists re-enacting the historic rides of their 19th century foremothers.  Credit: Photo courtesy of the Special Collections department of the Hennepin County Library.

This photograph from 1933 shows Minneapolis cyclists re-enacting the historic rides of their 19th century foremothers. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Special Collections department of the Hennepin County Library.

Pioneering pedalers

Updated: June 2, 2015 - 3:30 pm

In the midst of a national bicycle craze, a group of young Minneapolis women decided to organize a cycling club that would take group “runs” to Cedar Lake and Lake Harriet twice a week.

Yet before they could embark on their first outing they had to settle a pressing question. What to wear?

The answer was provided by Abby Mayhew, who can be credited with bringing physical fitness for women to the city. After arriving in Minneapolis in 1892, Mayhew started gym classes at the Young Woman’s Christian Association. She attracted both wage-earning women and their socially prominent sisters to her downtown gymnasium.

In the spring of 1894, she resolved to bring her female athletes, in the words of one newspaper account, “into the boulevards, country roads and upon the bosom of the waters.” The result was summer outing clubs for the growing membership of the YWCA. Thanks to Mayhew, Minneapolitans got accustomed to seeing large groups of women biking, rowing and playing tennis in the city’s parks.

This kind of physical activity was impossible without proper attire. So Mayhew designed a bloomer costume for lady athletes. This issue drew the fascinated attention of the city’s journalists, who made repeated visits to the YWCA to sketch the apparel of the exercising women for their fascinated readers. And a reporter was on hand when members of the newly constituted bicycling club voted “amid the blushes of the fair members” to wear Mayhew’s bloomers “at each club run.”

The “Syrian garb,” as Mayhew called it, was both “attractive and sensible” though it was shorter than other bloomer costumes seen in the city since it clasped “well up to the knee.” But the would-be cyclists steeled themselves with the resolution that “union is strength.” They decided to “make their first essay at public appearance in this garb together. Being sweetly sensible girls of the right calibre,” the newspaper reported, “they will doubtless persuade man to show his gallantry by not staring or being otherwise rude.”

On a May evening in 1894, the inaugural run of the bicycle club attracted the curious but not the vulgar. Newspaper accounts marveled at the spectacle of “nearly 20 young women in bloomer costume, ready to mount their wheels. . .in front of the Young Woman’s Christian Association rooms on Nicollet Avenue.” Only “one solitary member of the party was without the divided skirt; the rest adopted the latest cut and set an example in a body.”

After their ride, the women wrapped up the evening with a social hour at the YWCA. This group was led by Captain W. Snow and her lieutenant Madge Elliott. This fearless band of pioneers included Mlles. E.E. Mills, Kittie Webster, Hattie Evans, Fowler, Nichols, Butman, Dunn,  as well as sisters Chadbourne and sisters Peck. The matrons included Mesdames Blair, Hall, Witchie, Chator and Nash.

To these women, I say thank you for defying convention and getting on your wheels in public. Their trepidation may seem laughable to modern day readers who don shiny spandex and cycle to all corners of the city. But these lady riders were part of a long-running effort by women to claim public space. They likely did not identify as feminists. But they shared the feminist vision that women should be able to move — under their own power and in the company of other women — through city streets without harassment.  

Abby Mayhew left the city three years later to head the physical education program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She returned to the Twin Cities upon her retirement in 1930 and died in 1954 at the age of 90.

Thanks to Linnea Anderson and the Social Welfare History Archive at the University of Minnesota for giving me access to the scrapbooks of the YWCA, which included the image of Mayhew and the articles I quoted here. 

The Historyapolis Project seeks to bring fresh attention to the history of Minneapolis and is working to unearth stories that can explain how the city took shape. For more details visit www.historyapolis.com. This project has been made possible by the Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, which is administered by the Minnesota Historical Society. Find it on FB at www.facebook.com/TheHistoryapolisProject