Monday, July 14, 2014

“Sew on Your Own Buttons, I’m Going for a Ride!”

The Library Company of Philadelphia’s current exhibition That’s So Gay: Outing Early America showcases books, photographs, and graphic material that address gay identity in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Beyond attempting to identify individuals from this time as gay or straight, the exhibition digs deep into the ways that prescribed gender rules were broken, gender identities redefined, and the social repercussions of these changes.  One example from the exhibition is this comic valentine created by Frank Beard around 1870.  These “vinegar” valentines provided a way for people to criticize gender-benders in a humorous and typically scathing way.


The valentine shows a well-dressed woman standing on a platform addressing a crowd of women below her.  The text beneath the image reads, “You’re all aflame with woman’s rights, / And hope thereby to see strange sights; / No place too bold for such a trump - / You’d even go so far as mount the stump. / If you thus cast all social laws aside, / You’ll never be a happy bride.” 

Both the text and the image discourage women from transgressing social boundaries and gender roles to become involved with politics.  The valentine depicts the woman on the platform as frivolous: instead of campaign slogans advertising her political views, the woman is flanked by signs emphasizing her fashion sense.  Similarly, the text implies that a man would not want to marry a woman who has disregarded social mores in favor of women’s rights. 

Despite the prevalence of this kind of criticism, many women began to change their place in society.  In addition to political rights, women sought employment, education and an independent life outside the home, often without the constraints of marriage.  In the words of Winifred Harper Cooley, this “new woman is only the old woman with new opportunities.”

With these new opportunities came the need for mobility.  Women began using bicycles and wearing bloomers rather than voluminous dresses to accommodate their new mode of transportation.  These stereographs show another satirical view of women who are “all aflame with women’s rights”, paying particular attention to the effect that the “new woman” had on the traditional household.  The women in the photographs embrace their independence and leave the traditional tasks of wife and mother to their chagrined husbands.  Notice how bloomers and bicycles are featured in each image.  

The New Woman – Wash Day, c. 1901

William Herman Rau, Have Dinner at One Dear, c. 1897   

Sew on Your Own Buttons, I’m Going for a Ride. c. 1896

For more images like these and further discussion of gender roles in the 19th and early 20th centuries, be sure to visit That’s So Gay: Outing Early America on view until October 17, 2014 as well as review the complementary blog at

Alison Van Denend
IFPDA Foundation Curatorial Intern, Summer 2014


Winnifred Harper Cooley.  The New Womanhood. New York: Broadway Publishing Company, 1904.

Loralee MacPike. "The New Woman, Childbearing, and the Reconstruction of Gender, 1880-1900." NWSA Journal 1, no. 3 (Spring 1989): 368-97. JSTOR.

Additionally, see:

Melody Davis. “The New Woman in American Stereoviews, 1871-1905,” in Elizabeth Otto and Vanessa Rocco, eds., The New Woman International: Representations in Photography and Film from the 1870s through the 1960s.;rgn=div1;view=fulltext;xc=1#4.1

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