Victorian cyclists magic lantern slides

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The Victorians enjoyed a good laugh, usually at the expense of others, especially foreigners and the poor. There is plenty of evidence for this in humorous magic lantern slides that have survived. Jokes are, of course, ‘of their time’ and what is funny today may not be a few years from now. You only have to watch some of our 1960/70s TV comedy programmes to know that many are no longer funny, some embarrassingly offensive. It’s all to do with context and a shared view of the world we inhabit and when our culture or attitudes change, our humour does as well.

Today’s slides date from the 1890s and were a common format, a two slide set, the first setting up a situation and the second delivering the punchline.

I’m no expert on the history of cycling but am aware that through most of Queen Victoria’s reign, cycling was deemed unsuitable for ladies, as they might show an ankle whilst pedalling or get their skirts caught in the complicated mechanical gubbins (which, of course, only men could understand) or, if they had a puncture, could be stranded, helpless and vulnerable prey for any man who might be passing.

The reality was that when, eventually, bicycle manufacturers realised there was a huge, untapped market for their products, they made and marketed bikes suitable for women to ride. It challenged society’s (men’s) attitudes, changed women’s lives and was a major factor in the long, long road to equality that we take for granted today. Yes, I know there’s still a pay gap and there are sports and social clubs that bar women but given another fifty years, these will be confined to the history books ….. as will books! Actually, the latest figures show that sales of real, printed books are increasing while ebooks are in decline and, indeed, I sell about four printed books for every one of my ebooks. 

Owning a bicycle and joining one of the many new clubs that sprung up in the 1890s, meant that women could travel further afield, with or without their husband or sweetheart (a lovely word, let’s bring it back into use) for leisure and pleasure. It’s difficult to imagine now, but that new-found freedom and independence must have been exhilarating, exciting and joyous for women and girls.

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So, view these slides as you wish, funny or offensive, they are informative about the social attitudes of the time.

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