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May 4, 2015

Wheelwomen at Work is live!

May 4, 2015 | By | No Comments

I am excited to announce that Wheelwomen at Work is live!

Over the past academic year, I’ve been researching, writing and developing my CHI digital humanities project Wheelwomen at Work: Mapping Women’s Involvment in the Nineteenth-Century Bicycle Industry. For my launch post, I am going to recap why I developed the project, what tools I used, and future directions for the project.

My dissertation explores how nineteenth-century women used bicycling as an activist strategy. While conducting research, I uncovered how women’s involvement in the nineteenth-century bicycle industry was multifaceted and key to the industry as a whole, even though men held leadership positions in bicycle companies. I have found evidence of women who designed and produced bicycle accessories and clothing, while others developed frames and components. Women also worked in bicycle shops in sales and even as mechanics, and it was common for bicycle corporations to hire women as sales ‘agents’ to promote their brand. Other women quietly worked their way up to management positions in local factories. Young, working- class women were the invisible laborers behind most components and accessories, working long hours in dangerous machine shops and factory floors. I found a wealth of sources on women in the bicycle industry, yet they were largely scattered across archives. I believed these sources could be much more useful to scholars and lay enthusiasts in an accessible and organized format. I hoped that digitally curating these sources could allow for a deeper and richer understanding of women’s contributions to the bicycle industry, instead of reading individual women’s work as an outlining example isolated from one another.


Wheelwomen at Work showcases these sources at the historiographical intersections of sport history, women’s history and business history, with the goal to provide a fresh perspective of wheelwomen’s everyday lives and achievements. Scholars have understood cycling primarily through men’s athleticism and innovation, regulating women’s bicycling to short chapters, chapter sections, or footnotes despite the widespread popularity of bicycling among women. The historiography of the American bicycle industry is overwhelmingly a story of men’s successes and failures, typically with a focus on major corporations. The few historians who have incorporated women into bicycling research have only considered women as consumers and there is little scholarship which recognizes and explores women as innovators and workers in this industry. Similarly, scholars who have incorporated women have focused solely on the middle- and upper-classes, and have yet to fully consider working-class women as meaningful contributors to bicycling culture. By uncovering women’s involvement in the bicycle industry, Wheelwomen at Work contributes to scholarly conversations across multiple fields of inquiry. It also responds to calls by women’s historians such as Susan Lewis Ingalls to rethink the male-normative frameworks of business history, as well as calls for social histories of capitalism. Yet, Wheelwomen at Work is designed for all cycling enthusiasts, scholars and lay riders alike. It ultimately aims to showcase the rich history of women’s work as not simply consumers, but producers of bicycling culture.
I built Wheelwomen at Work using Mapbox and Bootstrap. Mapbox provides the custom online map design and hosts geographic and descriptive data for each pin. The content for each pin was developed from a variety of print and digitized sources. This project utilizes sources from ProQuest Historical Newspapers, Google Books, Google Patents, Haithitrust, Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, America’s Historical Newspapers, and Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000. Wheelwomen at Work also incorporates print sources from the Library of Congress due to generous support for travel funding from the Department of History at Michigan State University. Wheelwomen at Work uses Bootstrap as the front-end framework, which includes the header, footer, map legend, gallery, and pages about the project.

While I have finished my goals for the 2014-2015 academic year, my plans for Wheelwomen at Work are far from over. I have three major tasks for this project and I plan to start working on them this summer. 

1. I plan to add more pins. I have about ten more pins on deck. Most of them require more research on my part so that I learn more about each person or group and their contributions to the bicycle industry. A significant number of my new pins will highlight women factory workers, but I plan to add at least one new pin for each of my four categories of wheelwomen’s work (Inventors, Factory Workers, Saleswomen and Mechanics). I hope to find content for more new pins as I plug away on my dissertation.

2. I also have a bit more research to do on two of my current pins, both of which I am lacking the woman’s first name. For one woman I have only been able to find her husband’s first name, and thus she is identified as Mrs. Harry Kilpatrick. I only have first initials for another woman, Mrs. A. E. Miller. Even after months of research, I have still come up short for these two wheelwomen. I plan to dive more deeply into local records to see if I can find their full name.

3. I will be writing four short essays, one for each of the four categories of wheelwomen’s work (Inventors, Factory Workers, Saleswomen and Mechanics). In each essay I will discuss the broader historical context for each category. One of the challenges of developing this project was that I wanted to keep each pin content long enough to provide a clear understanding of each person or group, but not so long that it would be unwieldy or repetitive. I decided on a short paragraph for each pin, but what this meant was that I often left out some background information. My hope is that each essay will help locate the pin’s content within its broader historical backdrop, such as the experiences of women factory workers across industries or women inventors in this era.

I ultimately hope this projects helps us rethink our assumptions about nineteenth-century life in the United States,  especially by providing a new vision of sports history and business history which repositions women into the center. As one columnist declared in a 1892 interview of a female bicycle shop owner, “enterprise hasn’t any sex.”

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