Becoming "Louise the Wheelwoman"

"Meet the Wheelwoman" is an interactive theater program created in conjunction with a new learning space at the museum, the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object ProjectI play the role of Louise, a fictional female character, as I ride a restored 1898 antique safety bicycle from the museum's hands-on teaching collection. You can usually find me on the first floor of the museum, in the new Innovation Wing or in the Constitution Avenue lobby. Here are some of the valuable things I've learned from developing this historical character and interacting with the museum's visitors.

Photo of a silver women's safety bicycle

"The Safety" was the first bicycle innovation conducive to women's riding, due to its skirt-friendly drop frame. Soon after its introduction, bicycling, the New Woman, and women's rights were being discussed hand in hand. Bicycling gave the modern woman—regardless of race, class, and ethnicity—a new-found freedom, both physically and socially. Women could venture beyond the confines of their homes and the duties of motherhood to explore new horizons such as the woman suffrage movement and other social causes.

Photo of a bicycle wheel with spokes and a rubber tire

In addition, the character Louise addresses mechanical innovations (tires with air!), the economy of bicycles (buy it on credit!), the Rational Dress Movement (sport corsets!), the Good Roads Movement (no more bumpy roads!)—all, of course, through the lens of her own personal narrative and experiences and by sharing a plethora of items that a bicyclist might carry on a day trip. It's relatively easy to research and script a narrative, but the magic happens when you add the thousands of visitors who stream through the museum every day.

Photo of woman dressed in 1890s clothing with a bicycle, talking to museum visitors

Interacting with the public is a bit of an art form in itself. It rarely ends up the way you expect. But with a lot of research, and a little trial and error, the show will become what it was destined to be. After a few weeks of intense research, it was time to put Louise, the Wheelwoman character, out on the floor. The intent was to gauge audience interest and technical obstacles before the grand opening of the museum's Innovation Wing. I hoped to have enough information under my belt to answer the most popular questions. I also fully expected to be mistaken for Miss Gulch from The Wizard of Oz.

What I did not expect, however, was to be mistaken every day for Mary Poppins. I quickly found ways to use the misconception to my advantage. When I would hear someone say, "Look, there's Mary Poppins," I would stop the bicycle and say "Hello, my name is Louise, what's yours?" Surprisingly, when a visitor thinks they've identified you, there is less desire to engage in a human experience and more instinct to snap a souvenir photo and move on. When the visitor realizes that the star of the show is actually the bicycle, and that they are up close with a teaching artifact, there is more room for exploration, discovery, and surprise.

Black and white photograph of a woman posing, unsmiling, with a bicycle

Within the first week, I started to see a pattern in what sparks visitors' curiosities. I also found patterns in my own conversation starters. Soon, I was able to anticipate the next question. For example, a visitor might ask how much the bicycle cost. Their next question would surely be, "How much is that in today's dollars?" Answering that question would break the reality of the character, for Louise cannot see 118 years into America's economic future. So I did some calculations on the value of the dollar and the average income then and now to come up with the answer, "between three weeks' and three months' salary." It is a broad range, but it highlights that a brand-new bicycle is a hefty investment and that not everyone makes the same amount of money. Visitors always respond to this information, either verbally or with a physical expression, so I learned to anticipate the reaction and use it as a segue into talking about how "buying things on credit" and reselling used bicycles made the "freedom wheel" accessible to almost every income level, an important point to understand in viewing the bicycle boom (or a surge in any popular technical development).

I've also learned a few helpful historical tidbits from the audience. It wasn't long before I started attracting bicycle enthusiasts who would wait to speak to me after the crowd had passed. I learned about a big bicycle event in Richmond, Virginia, and about the process of making white rubber—one man even told me about his friend who wrote a popular book about Annie Londonderry (the very book that I had read about her global bicycling adventures).

Sheet music depicting a woman in a skirt riding a bicycle

Visitors of all ages love Louise and Sylvia, the name Louise has given to her 1898 Gendron Wheel Company Reliance Model D bicycle. Interaction with a mixed crowd reveals their individual curiosities. I've connected with mothers on the joys of an afternoon of freedom. As I'm speaking, I'll see men inch forward, eyes cast down, to inspect the fixed gear or wooden components of the bicycle. Children want to find the differences between my bicycle and theirs, or hear the "toot toot" of my whistle. Many visitors want to take a picture, to which I respond, "Do you want to use my camera?" while pulling out of my basket my authentic-to-the-era stereo camera, also from our hands-on teaching collection. Sometimes the simplest things elicit the biggest responses: the realization that the bicycle's lacing serves as a skirt guard, the revelation of the expandable bicycle cup, and the fact that Louise actually developed visible goosebumps when she talked about how excited she was to be out and about on her first solo adventure.

Photo of cylindrical steel pieces welded together

Of course, with an open-ended improvisational show, there are many opportunities to get a question to which you don't know the answer. Some questions might be about something that Louise wouldn't know. For example, many people want to talk about the Wright Brothers, whose flight innovations were not yet public at this point in Louise's life. My response might be, "Ah, yes, I've heard about the Wright Brothers. I think that they owned a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, and now they manufacture bicycles under the name The Wright Cycle Company. But there are over 300 bicycle manufacturers in the U.S. right now, so there isn't anything different between them and the rest!" Sometimes I would slightly modify a question so that I could answer correctly with information I knew. Then I would spend my breaks finding answers to those questions, so that I was prepared for the next time with an eloquently confident response.

Playing the Wheelwoman is a fulfilling experience for me as both an actor and an educator. It is one of the few theater experiences where the curiosities of the audience determine the structure, content, and length of the performance. An elementary school group, a group of curious scholars, and a group of international tourists will each see a different performance based on their questions and level of engagement. Interactions might be with one person, one small family, or a hundred visitors who are drawn to the growing crowd. But one thing stays the same: Louise is always excited about being on her first solo bicycling adventure, and she is very eager to share her excitement with any new friends that she happens to meet. Toodle-loo!

Julie Garner is an actor who portrays Louise "The Wheelwoman" at the museum, as part of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Project.