When we think about business and industry in the nineteenth-century United States, a few archetypes come to mind: the wealthy tycoon, the factory worker, the inventor, and the small business owner. Most of us usually imagine these people as men. This is not an accident, but a result of what we learned in high school and college history courses about nineteenth-century life. Images of young girls working in textile mills may come to mind, but rarely do we picture nineteenth-century women filing patents of their own inventions, running a store or building complex machinery. Yet, with a little detective work, one can find a variety of sources which showcase the diversity of women’s engagement with business in the nineteenth-century.
I uncovered a striking example of this while working on my dissertation. I am a fourth year doctoral student in history. My fields of study are Women’s and Gender History, United States History and the History of Science and Medicine. My specific area of research is women’s activism in the nineteenth century, and my dissertation is on women’s bicycling practices. I personally became interested in cycling when I moved to Vermont after college. I never considered cycling as a subject worthy of scholarship until I was in my MA program in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Louisville. In a seminar on the history of women’s health, my professor encouraged me to think critically about the power of recreation and leisure in women’s lives. It did not take long to find a treasure trove of sources on women’s bicycling in the nineteenth-century, but I was surprised to find how few historians and scholars have studied it. My research paper for that class became my MA thesis for the program, which then morphed into the framework for my dissertation at MSU.
Last year when I was working my way through newspaper coverage of women’s cycling in the 1890s, I was surprised to find short articles and brief mentions of women involved in the production side of the bicycling industry. The historiography of women’s cycling is quite limited, and scholars who have worked in this area have largely understood women only as consumers of this new and popular technology. Yet I found evidence that women were not simply buying and riding bikes, but also designing and building them. My project, titled “Wheelwomen at Work,” will provide a digital showcase of women’s involvement in the bicycle industry from the 1880s to the 1910s, the peak years of cycling before the rise of the automobile. I hope to document women’s longstanding efforts in the bicycle industry and provide a glimpse of what is lost when we assume only men were active participants in the business ventures of this era.