Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Antiques Roadshow, George Q. Cannon, Feminism, and (Gasp) Bicycle Riding

Antiques Roadshow, George Q. Cannon, Feminism, and (Gasp) Bicycle Riding

By: Ardis E. Parshall - January 07, 2009

If you’re an Antiques Roadshow fanatic, you may recall the Bismarck, North Dakota appraisal of these two window cards for a 19th century bicycle company. The appraiser’s description included these remarks:

Now, in the 1880s and 1890s, bicycles were the hottest seller basically in any market. And specifically, bicycles were marketed to women, and you’ll see in both of these posters, the main subjects are women. In this poster nearest to me, you actually see two very affluent, well-dressed, stylish women out for perhaps a Sunday afternoon ride in the park. And you can imagine this is who the bicycle companies were appealing to. They really wanted women as their customers. These are very irresistible, very charming images. In the poster closer to you, not only do we see an emancipated woman who has gone for a ride with a man in the countryside, which would have been a fairly risque idea in the 1880s, but if you look at her pose, she is a very self-confident, a very modern woman. In the 1880s, that was really very progressive.

“Risque” and “very progressive” in the Gentile world of the 1880s, perhaps, but oh, my! wicked, apparently, in the Mormon world of the 1890s. Exhibit: This editorial, probably written by George Q. Cannon, in the 1 January 1896 issue of The Juvenile Instructor:

Bicycle Riding.

In conversation the other day with some of the leading officers of the Church concerning the sin of fornication – there being some cases of this kind submitted to the First Presidency – the question was asked, “What reason is there for these cases occurring at this time? It is [not] unusual to hear of three or four cases occurring in one city.”

The reply was that there were two causes: one, the intimacy which had grown up among young people of both sexes in bicycle riding; and the other, the taking part in excursion and other parties at untimely hours of the night.

We are not disposed to reject improvements or inventions which contribute to human progress and development. In fact, we are fond of progress, in the right direction, and would not say one word that could be construed into viewing it with disfavor. But we have entertained fears concerning the effects which are likely to follow the adoption of the bicycle as a means of locomotion for girls; and that which we have heard from the settlement to which we refer confirms fears that we have entertained concerning this practice. Any fashion that begets too great familiarity between the sexes, especially when they are young and inexperienced, is one that should be guarded against. We have noticed that bicycle riding brings about a certain comradeship between young people that might, under some circumstances, lead to unfortunate results. Certainly the practice creates acquaintanceship and familiarity that, if it were not for the riding, would not be created; and sometimes this acquaintanceship is not desirable. Girls may be thrown into society by riding bicycles that they would not meet with under other circumstances, and would perhaps shun if it were in the ordinary intercourse of society.

On this account we have felt that parents and guardians should exercise the greatest of care in allowing their daughters or those in their charge to go out riding on bicycles unless properly attended. it has been a question in many minds whether bicycle riding may not lead to immodesty and be injurious in other directions.

There are many things that may be said favorable to the use of the bicycle. It furnishes exercise, it is a delightful method of getting over the ground swiftly, and is exhilarating. Exercise in the open air is good for all. The question remains, however, whether this kind of exercise for young ladies is conducive to health, and especially to good morals.

We mention these cases of wrongdoing to call the attention of parents and others to the fact that they are attributed to the associations which have arisen through bicycle riding.

As to late hours and going to parties at untimely hours, there can be no question in any thinking person’s mind as to the effects which follow such practices; they are evil, it may be truthfully said, in every instance. No parents who have any regard for their children will permit them to be out late at night in promiscuous assemblages. Indulgence of that kind towards children will inevitably lead to bad consequences and result in sorrow to the parents as well as to the offspring. Too much cannot be said against such practices, and all should be warned against them; for if permitted, and they are followed up, they are almost sure to bring shame and disgrace.

Needless to say (so I’ll say it anyway), fornication is bad, too great familiarity is bad, undesirable acquaintanceship is bad. But why, oh, why does the heavy hand fall always on the girls? Were not fornication, too great familiarity, and undesirable acquaintanceship also bad for the boys? And why curtail bicycle riding, with all its admittedly favorable traits, rather than teach the girls (and boys) the importance of chastity and of proper social behavior even when bicycles are involved?

And then there’s the “question in many minds whether bicycle riding may not lead to immodesty and be injurious in other directions” – injurious in the direction that riding astride a horse or wearing pant-type underclothing had long been considered injurious, of course.

It just isn’t fair that so often, rather than dealing with the real problem, the proposed solution is the easy one of locking up the girls.

Okay, end of rant. For the time being. And yes, this touched a nerve in my own memory.



  1. Excellent post, Ardis. The bit about staying out late is interesting as I seem to remember quite frequently reading in various 19th century diaries about dances lasting until 2:00 am or so.

    But I think you are spot on, that instead of dealing with root problems there is sometimes the tendency to talk about superfluous antecedents.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 7, 2009 @ 10:11 am

  2. …there is also this post at the JI, which ties in rather nicely (pictures to boot!).

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 7, 2009 @ 10:13 am

  3. How could I have forgotten Heidi’s post?! That was a good one with great photos.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 7, 2009 @ 10:17 am

  4. Ardis,

    I remember the incident a few years back where an assault of a female student at BYU had prompted a ban on young women going out alone after dark unless accompanied by a male student. A group of female students responded by saying in effect that the problem might better be solved by requiring the young men not to be out alone at night unless accompanied by two or more young women, as the women were not the perpetrators of the assault. If I recall, the administration canceled the ban after that.

    On a lighter note, this made me think of the Winter Solstice Nude Bicycle Ride in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, which has been upheld as not obscene by the courts here. They do have to wear helmets, though.

    Comment by kevinf — January 7, 2009 @ 10:17 am

  5. This post reminded me, too, of the BYU incident where a women’s group suggested that unaccompanied men not be allowed out after dark. It was very interesting to see the resulting anger in some men at such a suggestion. It sure made me seee things in a new light!

    Great post.

    Comment by Martin Willey — January 7, 2009 @ 10:36 am

  6. Exactly, Ardis. As I read GQC’s editorial, I kept saying to myself, “Why not prohibit *boys* from bicycle riding?” I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one who questioned the logic of his conclusion.

    And without being too, ahem, detailed, riding a horse can be “injurious” to men, too. And for that matter, so can riding a bike. Am I right, gentlemen?

    Comment by Hunter — January 7, 2009 @ 11:18 am

  7. #6 – Yup.

    #4 – kevinf’s comment highlights something that always bugs me – attempts to curtail negative activities by restricting what potential victims can do. There are lots of more obscure applications in society and at church, and I try hard to recognize and address them whenever I see them.

    Btw, kevinf, it’s good to see your schedule apparently has cleared enough to have your wonderful insights available again in the Bloggernacle. I’ve missed them.

    Comment by Ray — January 7, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

  8. Ray # 7, I try not to let work get in the way of blog surfing, but sometimes things just don’t go my way.

    Comment by kevinf — January 7, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

  9. Br. Cannon would probably have a stroke if he saw how many sister missionaries ride bicycles now, and in dresses to boot. Talk about immodest.

    Comment by Mark Brown — January 7, 2009 @ 1:53 pm

  10. . . . BYU had prompted a ban on young women going out alone after dark unless accompanied by a male student.

    I’m a little surprised BYU would try to enact such an utterly unenforceable rule.

    Comment by JimD — January 7, 2009 @ 2:23 pm

  11. If only they could have figured out a way for a woman to ride a bicycle side-saddle, then the “injurious in other directions” problem could have been solved.

    Comment by Mark B. — January 7, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

  12. My first thought was sister missionaries. My second thought was just how evil bike riding could be for women. Remember the scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where Kathryn Ross and Paul Newman ride a bike together (with Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head playing). Next thing we know she’s off to Bolivia with Paul and Robert Redford and a life of…

    Comment by Steve C. — January 7, 2009 @ 4:20 pm

  13. Here are other examples of wisdom aimed at protecting the gentle sex:

    11 Jan 1904: Hyrum Stake Relief Society warned mothers about their daughters sleigh riding. “A great many can trace their downfall to buggy and sleigh riding.” I don’t think they were talking about breaking an arm or leg!

    24 Apr 1911: Word was sent from the RS General Board to sisters in the country to keep their girls from the city unless they had a proper escort. They were told not to let the girls go to Salt Lake City and other large cities to work as many girls had been ruined from doing this.

    Comment by Maurine — January 7, 2009 @ 5:17 pm

  14. “many girls had been ruined ”

    Oh, that brings back a memory of a story somewhere (family home evening manual? class lesson? the ubiquitous Especially for Mormons?) of how a girl had gone off to the city for a job and got pregnant (ahem, I mean, in trouble), and came back home. She stood up in testimony meeting and asked the ward’s forgiveness. Then one by one the priesthood brethren stood up to ask her forgiveness for not having stopped her or looked in on her or some such…

    It always seemed like a creepy story to me.

    Comment by Coffinberry — January 7, 2009 @ 6:26 pm

  15. As to late hours and going to parties at untimely hours, there can be no question in any thinking person’s mind as to the effects which follow such practices; they are evil, it may be truthfully said, in every instance.

    And where does the church suggest, nay recommend, my teenage daughters go every other Saturday night? To a dance! With Boys! At untimely hours! and what follows these terrible practices? Usually a carpool ride home in a dark car with some of those same boys….

    Comment by iguacufalls — January 7, 2009 @ 8:01 pm

  16. Heber Grant Ivins (1889-1974) wrote in his diary/memoir that when basketball arrived in the Mexican colonies, it came as a game for girls, not guys. The girls loved it. After a few days of watching them, though, the men decided that it wasn’t appropriate for girls to wear short skirts and bloomers and jump around that way, and wouldn’t let the girls play anymore. The boys promptly took up the sport.

    Thanks for your comments, all. I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 7, 2009 @ 8:43 pm

  17. I wonder how others see these exhortations in history about the immodesty of things we now consider normal and modest. To me it puts in proper context the similar exhortations today for girls not to do this or wear that. I see them as coming from men concerned for our safety, but not so much for our development as human beings. And I perceive that the sweep of history will leave many of these ideas behind.

    Anyone who thinks women are already mostly liberated, and that things in our society don’t have very much farther to go in that regard, I think is mistaken. When women really come into our own, not just in western democracies but all over the globe, there are going to be tremendous changes that come as well, beyond all our ability to prophesy.

    What would society be like if domestic work were actually counted as work, and well-paid?

    What if people realized and believed Christ’s teaching about service to one another, and held the servant of all to be the master of all? Or held the master of all to be the servant in the sense of foot-washing and latrine-cleaning? I’m waiting for my CEO to come offer to wash my feet.

    What if the raising and education of children were recognized as nothing short of the future of our civilization, and the competition to participate were equivalent to that for something like a Harvard law degree now?

    What if nurses were the high-paid profession, and doctors came in slightly behind (since they know the subject matter but not the patient’s particular case)?

    What if engineers put as much ingenuity and effort into designing tools for housekeeping as they do now for automobiles? The shameful state of home automation today appalls me. In what other field of daily endeavor have humans made almost no progress since WW2?

    What if education were individually adapted to the student? What if there were dozens of free alternatives for various curricula in all different subjects?

    What if developing the world were the job of women in developed nations? If we worked with women in impoverished villages to build the things they want for their children, wells and sewerage and waste-water treatment plants so that clean water is always available, schools to educate girls and boys to any level they desire, clinics and hospitals to treat the sick and injured, roads to bring markets close, electricity, phone networks, natural gas, internet, all the things we take for granted here in developed countries, and consider part of a healthy functioning home.

    What else could we do if we have the vision, and make the effort?

    Comment by Tatiana — January 8, 2009 @ 12:10 am

  18. “In what other field of daily endeavor have humans made almost no progress since WW2?”

    In the way in which most of the actual instruction is delivered, elementary education.

    Comment by Ray — January 8, 2009 @ 8:39 am

  19. Home Automation for Housekeeping?

    The Swiffer

    The Roomba

    The extendable Pole for dusting high places

    The Wet Vac

    The Energy efficient Washer/Dryer/Refrigerator/dish washer

    Hot Water on Demand

    The Tankless Water Heater

    Affordable Riding Lawnmowers

    Automatic Sprinklers for watering the lawn

    None of these existed when I was a kid, much less pre-WW2…

    Comment by Matt W. — January 8, 2009 @ 9:01 am

  20. Makes me glad to not have a bike… :-)

    Comment by Brian Duffin — January 8, 2009 @ 1:24 pm

  21. It seems to me that in the past, women were seen as in charge of controling sexuality. I know when I was a teenager our leaders thought it was the girls that were in charge of how far we went and set the limits. Everyone knows that males have limited control over their sexual needs. I believe that is why George Q. Cannon was talking about/to the girls.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — January 8, 2009 @ 4:50 pm

  22. Everyone knows that males have limited control over their sexual needs.

    Ew. Barf. Only because they’ve been given a license to do so because they see sentences like that all over the place. I am glad that MOST LDS men are capable of admitting that sexuality can be controlled.

    Oh, and I choose to love the perspective of GQC. From now on, when I ride my bike, I’ll imagine I’m some sort of sex goddess floating through the breeze. :) Thanks for the inspiration, Brethren!

    Comment by Natalie — January 11, 2009 @ 6:42 pm

  23. Natalie, I hope you understand that the line you quote was typed with a great deal of irony. Enjoy your next bike ride!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 11, 2009 @ 7:21 pm

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