JUMP TO PAGE   100  >  200  >  300  >  400  >  500  >  600

Incognito: 1890

Incognito: 1890

Circa 1890. "Frances Benjamin Johnston, self-portrait, dressed as a man with false mustache." The Washington, D.C., photographer was one of the first women to rise to prominence in the profession. Albumen print. View full size.


On Shorpy:
Today’s Top 5

Extraordinary Lady!

I'm beginning to develop a great fondness for Ms. Johnston and her work!

Remarkable woman. *swoon*

Her Left Foot

Perhaps her extended left foot, with toes suspiciously out of the frame, is squeezing the bulb.


I always wondered why the first bicycles were shaped so funny, why the seats were so high.

My theory is that the height of the seat was the same as the average height of a horse's withers, so coming from a culture built entirely around horses as transportation, it makes sense that the first bicycle would have been designed to mimic the height and foot placement of a saddled horse.

[The reason is more mechanical than cultural. The only way to build a reasonably speedy direct-drive cycle is with a big wheel, with the diameter determined by the length of the average person's legs. Bicycles with smaller wheels and comparable speeds weren't possible until the introduction of the sprocket-and-chain gearset. - Dave]

Extreme penny farthing-ing

At least two people have ridden around the world on penny farthings.

Around the World on a Bicycle by Thomas Stevens, first published in 1887 is available in hardback, and as a free e-book at The Gutenberg Project.

Joff Summerfield did it between May 2006 and November 2008.

Self-Portraits in the 1890s

I can't see a cable in this image, but self-portraits were doable in the 1890s. Photographer Alice Austen shot many self-portraits, using a pneumatic cable to release the shutter, as early as 1884.

High-wheel Faceplant

Something rarely if ever mentioned about the penny farthing and other high-wheelers is the problem with braking. You can see the brake just above the top of the wheel. If this was applied hard enough, the seat (and rear wheel) would rotate with the main wheel, slamming the rider into the ground.

One solution was to put the little wheel at the front, but by then the symmetrical two-wheeler was taking over.


Pardon my ignorance about photography but how did someone take a self portrait back in 1890. They couldn't have had timers on the cameras back then so how was it done? There does look like there is some sort of cable running down from the wall hanging but I can't quite make out where it ends up. Is there some sort of apparatus where she would squeeze a bulb that would trip the lens and take the picture?

[Probably the apparatus known as "assistant who squeezes the bulb." - Dave]

Taming the Bicycle

Mark Twain on "Taming the Bicycle."

Mounting blocks? Neigh.

Mounting a velocipede or high wheeled bicycle is an art. Using a mounting block wouldn't work -- the bike has to be moving or else you fall over. You have to get a running start, pushing the bike, then put a foot on the frame step, somewhat like a stirrup, and in a single fluid motion you throw yourself up and over the frame, landing in the seat.


Simply stopping pedaling does not stop the bike - the pedals ratchet while coasting, just as most modern bikes do. The small "finger" looking device at the top of the wheel is the brake, activated by the levers on the right handle bar. It is not very effective, but its better than nothing.

Riding one of these is more like riding a unicycle with a training wheel! They can be very fast, and if you fall, you REALLY fall, usually on your face. The gyroscopic precession with that tall wheel makes turning at slow speeds interesting, but once up and rolling, the bike is amazingly stable.

The Dreaded Header

Years ago I had a co-worker whose hobby was penny-farthing bicycles. Infamous for their propensity to propel hapless riders into a "header" -- when they were pitched over the driving wheel upon encountering an obstruction. Which explains why the more conventional design that came along later was known for a time as the "safety bicycle."


A "Boneshaker" for obvious reasons.

Step 1

Pounds, shillings and....

This type of bicycle was termed the "penny-farthing" in Britain (and throughout the Commonwealth) due to the sizes of the big wheel (the penny) and the little wheel (the farthing).

The bikes were mounted via a little step just above the small wheel -- partially hidden here by the lady's legs.

How to handle it

I found a couple of videos demonstrating mounting technique, and it appears to require some agility. A summary:

1. There is a small step on the left side of the rail, down toward the smaller wheel. Put the left foot on the step and both hands on the handlebars.

2. Kick with the right leg to start rolling, then use the step and handlebars to lever the body up toward the seat.

3. Throw the right leg over the seat and onto the right-side pedal as it comes up.

4. Straighten out and get the left foot onto the left-side pedal, and ride away.

Horsing around with a bicycle

I'm pretty sure one mounts them the same way one mounted a horse. In the pre-automobile era people put mounting blocks outside buildings. These were basically stone (sometimes wood) platforms with two or three steps leading up to the platform area. The mounting area was typically 3 feet by four feet or so.

When you mounted the bicycle you were standing tall enough, thanks to the block, that the bicycle seat was below your own seat.

As for how you stopped them -- uhm, with great difficulty? I do not know if they have some kind of braking mechanism at the top of that wheel or not. I see something there. But since it is direct drive on the hub of that front wheel, you can stop it by no longer pedaling forward.

How you keep it from tipping over after you stop it--I haven't a clue.


I don't know how well her disguise concealed her identity but it certainly failed to conceal her gender in those bike pants.

I have so many questions!

Starting with how tall is that door? Or was she just a tiny woman who made the door seem giant in comparison?

Also, what about the draped painting or mirror on the wall? Was it simply draped so as not to distract from the photo's subject, or for some other reason?

I have a friend who has one of those bicycles tattooed on her ankle. They look awfully complicated to mount, let alone ride.

Never assume...

I will assume that profession is photography, not cross-dressing.

Awesome (and imposing) bike!

How on Earth did you get on top of that? And how did you keep your balance? I've heard velocipedes (that´s their name, right?) were really fast, but also very unstable. And when it came to stopping, how did you keep from falling?

This photo ranks high in my favorite list, definitely!

Syndicate content is a vintage photography site featuring thousands of high-definition images from the 1850s to 1950s. The site is named after Shorpy Higginbotham, a teenage coal miner who lived 100 years ago. Contact us | Privacy policy | Site © 2022 Shorpy Inc.