Bike Parts History Lesson: The Christy Anatomical Saddle
The contemporary shape of the bicycle saddle might be something one takes for granted as a cyclist. This sleek, aerodynamic platform for your buttocks may resemble the beak of a bird of prey or a strange alien space vessel from the Sci-Fi Channel. What you may not know about the modern bicycle saddle is that it took about 150 years to develop to what it is today. There have been countless iterations (including some hair-brained designs) over the last sesquicentennial, but one saddle stands proudly above the others for its innovation during its time in 1897: the Christy Anatomical Saddle.
A later iteration of the Christy.
In the late 1890s, the "safety bicycle" rose to replace the ageing and very unsafe high wheelers, often referred to as Penny Farthings. The safety bicycle became popular not just with mustachioed monocled Victorians in top hats, but by everyone - including women. Now remember this was still the 19th Century, and male-dominated society didn't take too kindly to women having this new-found freedom. Some male physicians openly objected to women riding bikes, one physician even citing:
"The moment speed is desired the body is bent forward in a characteristic curve, the body is thrown forward, causing the clothing to press against the clitoris, thereby eliciting and arousing feelings hitherto unknown and unrealised by the young maiden."
To keep these these two-wheeled women from purportedly becoming aroused while riding their bikes, the "anatomical" or "hygienic" saddle was born. It was patented in 1898 as the "H.A. Christy Bicycle Saddle" by Henry A. Christy of Jackson, Michigan and was quickly snapped up for distribution by America's leading bicycle manufacturer at the time, A.G. Spalding.
What followed was an interesting series of marketing campaigns that claimed the Christy Anatomical Saddle was the "physician's choice." Advertisements and medicinal journal reviews would tout how the Christy would do away with the "ill effects of pressure on the perineum and soft parts under the pubic arch." This marketing language had two intentions; one was to give men a more comfortable ride on their bikes, the other was to relieve men of the notion that women riding bikes were enjoying "clitoral stimulation." The increased riding comfort for women themselves was a bit of a sidebar.
The Christy went on to have a long and succesful career in the early 20th Century with several iterative models. It was also the saddle of choice on the Spalding Special bicycles ridden by the 25th U.S. Infantry as they crossed the Rocky Mountains several times on the "some of the roughest roads in the United States." The military cycle tours were to test the resilience of bikes and soldiers in war. Wrote Second Lieutenant James A Moss:
"Some of our rides were long, tedious and trying, and during the whole season not a single soldier was in any way chafed. I heartily recommend the saddle to general public."
Of course that high opinion of the saddle was likely ordered by his military superiors at the request of A.G. Spalding, which had donated the bikes to the government. But a rich history nonetheless.
A modern fiberglass remake of the classic Christy
And so the next time you jump on your bike, remember that doing so was not always the most comfortable recreation. We all have the Christy to thank for revolutionizing saddle design, however embellished.
Images courtesy of the Online Bicycle Museum. For more old-timey bicycle stories visit them at oldbike.eu/museum/