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October 14, 2013

Mrs. F. M. Cossitt: The First Woman to Ride a Bicycle in New York, ca. 1888?

A quick web search for Mrs F. M. Cossitt brings up a number of websites that carry the above photo together with the caption, “Mrs F. M. Cossitt, first woman to ride a bicycle in New York.” Unfortunately none of these websites include any further information or citations that confirm the provenance of the photograph, who took it, where it was taken, or the identity of the woman in it. This begs the question, is this actually a picture of Mrs F. M Cossitt? And was she the first woman to ride a bike in New York?

Mrs. F. M. Cossitt, first woman to ride a bicycle in New York, ca. 1888, via (Museum of the City of New York)

It may be significant that the Museum of the City of New York is one of the websites that carries the photo. It lends some credence to the claim that it is of Mrs F. M. Cossitt. Unfortunately the Museum provides no further information about the photo, other than that it was taken circa 1888. A date that does fit with the early days of the growth in popularity of cycling among women thanks in part to the contemporary commercial success of the safety bicycle as an alternative to the ordinary or penny farthing.

A few articles from The New York Times provide further evidence. Its report on the annual century ride of the metropolitan cycling clubs tells us that an F. M. Cossitt of the Riverside Wheelmen was one of the sixty riders who had the “pluck and endurance to complete the journey” on roads that were “in a miserable condition”. In 1894 F. M. Cossitt appears again as a member of the committee tasked with organizing the Bloomfield Cycling and Athletic Association’s lantern parade.

A year later we see a Mrs F. M. Cossitt make an appearance when the New York Times reported that she was on the Executive Board that was organizing the Bloomfield Cycling and Athletic Association’s fair to be held at Central Hall on May 7th and 8th, 1895, the clubs own premises being thought too small to host the event. The fair seems to have been successful in attracting big crowds, who enjoyed such delights as the “art booth” where “all sorts of choice bric-a-brac, pastels, and artistic trifles” were for sale; the “stationery and perfumery booths”; the “fishing pond”, a version of a lucky dip where customers could ‘fish’ for a mystery prize; the “oriental booth” for its range of “Turkish cigarettes, pipes, tobacco, and cigars”; and the “common-sense booth” where “everything of a domestic nature” was to be had. Music was provided by the Essex Mandolin Club, all cyclists as well as musicians, while refreshment in the form of lemonade and a “hot supper” in the dining room were available.

From The New York Times, August 5, 1894. © The New York Times

We may conclude therefore that Mr and Mrs F. M. Cossitt were a married coupled, that Mr Cossitt was definitely an active cyclist, and that both he and Mrs F. M. Cossitt actively participated in the Bloomfield Cycling and Athletic Association at a time shortly after the date that the photograph is assumed to have been taken. It is also clear that the initials, F. M., in Mrs Cossitt’s name are those of her husband, rather than her own. Who then, was Mr F. M. Cossitt?

The New Jersey State Census of 1895 lists only one person with those initials, a Franklin Millard Cossitt who was married to Carrie Estella Cossitt, née Grey. Both were recorded as residents of Essex County, an area that includes Bloomfield. Assuming that the description accompanying the photograph is correct we can say with reasonable confidence that the woman captured riding her bicycle is Carrie Estella Cossitt.

Shortly before the photograph is thought to have been taken Franklin Cossitt was working for George Eastman, the inventor of the Kodak roll film camera in 1888 and the founder of the Eastman Kodak Company in 1892. Together with Franklin, Eastman had received letters patent for “certain improvements in detective cameras” in 1886, the same year that Franklin and Carrie were married. Given his interest in cameras and photography this raises the possibility that it was Franklin himself who took the photograph of his young wife on her bicycle.

(Read more of the story at Cycling History...)



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