Girls On Bikes – Bertha and the Billion Bike Rides
In my quest to find the “first female cyclist” I initially spent time researching the development of the safety bicycle, convinced that a female relative of one of the many involved in its “invention” would have egged on her spouse/brother/cousin to make a bike SHE could ride.
I quickly realized that women rode bikes – velocipedes and even the ladies’ draisine – long before bicycles per se entered the scene. That led me to Carrie Moore, the skating and velocipede queen.
But another woman’s name popped up in the early 1870s. Frances Willard, who wrote a book immortalizing her attempts to learn to ride a two-wheeler in her 50s, mentioned another woman, a young German artist, who had inspired her to ride.
The woman’s name was Bertha von Hillern. von Hilern isn’t known today, but she made a big splash in a short space of time in 1876 – 1877 when she immigrated from Germany and because a professional walker, or pedestrienne. von Hillern made thousands from her feats of athletic walking.
Apparently, unless Willard mixed things up, von Hillern also demonstrated her skills on a bicycle. Which is interesting to contemplate, as in 1876 the prevalent bike was a high-wheeled Ordinary – “safeties” with two wheels of similar size were a few years off.
The Hartford Sunday Globe describes Bertha von Hillern:
“The country was carried by storm by the marvellous feats performed by Bertha von Hillern, the pedestrienne. When the business became played out she made an equally startling departure and went into the fine-art business, and probably would have continued to paint yellow water and green skies with pie-cutter birds put in here and there, had not the knee-pantalooned bicyclist dashed across her vision. Here was her forte, she thought, and she began last fall the tumbleoff-and-sprain your-arm business in New York, probably in some sequestered nook where the small boy, who cries ‘Mister, ring yer bell,’ and ‘ Say, your little wheel is going ’round,’ was not. She has conquered, and has ordered a beautiful nickel-plated machine, which is now being made at the Weed works, and as quick as she has an old pair of pants cut over she will eome forth and dazzle the world. This settles it; the bicycle is all right; all it waited was the support of the ladies. But what shall we call the riders? Won’t some one please discover the feminine of bicyclist?”
So von Hillern wasn’t likely the “first” cyclist, but she was definitely an early adopter, a couple of decades ahead of the bicycle boom of the mid-90s.
Once she made the money she’d set out to, von Hillern ‘retired’ to a country home and painted, as art was her first calling.
According to data from Bicycles Belong, American women make approximately a billion bike trips each year – and even if it’s in very small measure, we have Bertha to thank.