While the Van Buren sisters left New York with the intention of becoming the first women to ride solo across the U.S., the mother and daughter team of Effie (1889-1966) and Avis Hotchkiss seem to have had little to no idea they were going to go down in motorcycling history when they left New York en route to the World’s Fair in San Francisco.

Effie later said they’d had no dreams of medals, riches, or fame, they merely wanted to see America and thought the Harley-Davidson for herself and the sidecar for her mother was the best way to accomplish it.  Effie’s motorcycle was a Harley Davidson three-speed V-twin that she bought with a small inheritance. 

The trip took two months.  They were the first female team, motorcycle and side-car, to go cross country, and they were real outdoorswomen.  They took with them a tent, blankets, pots, and pans, and tools because there were no hotels, restaurants, and repair shops along the way.  They would have had to carry at least a small amount of food staples from which to prepare meals as well. 

[This photo was taken in 1937, 22 years after Effie and Avis made their trip cross-country with tent, cookpots, blankets, food, etc. on the Harley with a sidecar.  The tent is the sort that was commonly used in 1915.  They probably had to cut  wooden poles and stakes every time they set the tent up because of limitations on the amount of gear they could fit in the sidecar.]

Roads were practically nonexistent in places, and dirt paths in others, dusty in dry weather and muddy when it rained, a test of patience for riders and a test of endurance for the motorcycles.  Legend has it that at one point in the trip the tires would no longer hold air and the women stuffed strips from their blankets into the tires until they could get to a repair shop. 

Their route took them through Nevada and Utah, Reno, Salt Lake City, Omaha, Davenport, Chicago, and Milwaukee. 

Their story, taken from a diary kept during their trip, was the opening venue at the AMA’s Women Motorcycling Conference in 2002.  As far as I can tell, the diary has never been published, but certainly should be.

In order to understand what women’s lives were like when the ladies set out on their adventure, let’s consider much of the rural south did not have electricity yet, for those who had electricity the electric vacuum (invented in 1901) was still being “improved” in hopes of producing a model that housewives and their domestics thought worked better than brooms and rug beaters, ice boxes were cooled by large chunks of ice, enamel gas cook stoves were just going on the market, most women cooked on a wood cook stove and a few rural women still used a fireplace hearth, a patent was issued for an electric washing machine 5 years before but few owned the washers yet, and just 8 years before Maytag had introduced a wooden tub manual washing machine, the electric clothes dryer was introduced that year but the average homemaker wouldn’t have one for many years yet.

Ladies clothing patterns were ordered from magazines and consisted of patterns for under garments, dresses, skirts, waists (blouses), and jackets – one has to look long and hard to find a photo or a written account of a woman wearing trousers and the few who did were looked unkindly upon. Most women were still wearing frilly caps upon their heads and corsets under their frocks.

Avis was wearing a dress, or skirt and waist, with a heavy sweater and hat, but the younger Effie was wearing men’s trousers astride her Harley in the photograph taken of them in front of the Harley-Davidson dealership in Salt Lake City in 1915. 

Wives were usually given allowances to use in keeping the household running, and a wife who recommended a husband keep what was necessary to get him through the week and turn over the rest of his paycheck to her to manage was forward thinking enough to draw huge attention from the periodicals. 

There was no FDA, and adulterations of food, such as plaster of paris added to flour to stretch the quantity in favor of the merchant, were common.  In rural areas there were few pre-packaged foods in the mercantile and rural women still made their own vinegar, butter, and cheese.    

When a homemaker made the statement, “The greatest Discovery I have made during fifteen years of housekeeping is that the earth revolves on its axis and all other important events take place just the same whether I iron on Tuesday or Thursday, or clean on Friday or Saturday,” it painted an accurate picture of the daily lives of most women. 

Except in wealthier families, women still made their own soap, cured their own meat, gathered their own eggs, raised gardens from which they put up food to last through the winter, hung out laundry in every sort of weather, ironed with sad irons on wooden ironing boards, made clothing for themselves and their children, and in order to get it all done, kept to a strict schedule. 

Most women could only dream of traveling cross-country, and would have shuddered at the thought of what society would think about two women setting out alone on such a trip, especially on a motorcycle.

Bibliography:  American Motorcyclist June 2002, Aug. 1988; Good Housekeeping Jan.-Dec., 1911 and 1915.  Thehistoricfoodie.wordpress.com. Rumble, Victoria.  Outdoor Recreation and Leisure in 19th Century America, see book store on thehistoricfoodie.wordpress.com.