Annie Londonderry was an unknown wife and mother until she became a global sensation as the first woman to bicycle around the world!
Annie Cohen Kopchovsky was born in Riga, Latvia in 1870. Her family set sail for America and a new life when Annie was just a child. There isn’t much record of her childhood, but by 1892 she was married with 3 children and living in Boston. Fame was just around the corner.
According to most accounts, two business men made a bet with one another that no woman could beat the record for cycling around the world, which the first man to do it, Thomas Stevens, had set 10 years earlier. They added some particular details; could a woman cycle around the world in 15 months (Stevens had taken 32), starting with zero cash and earn $5000 while at it?! The woman to attempt the challenge was in to win $10,000 if she succeeded. It’s not certain how Annie became the woman to take up the challenge, especially as she had never even sat on a bicycle at that point, however, Annie it was to be.
And so it was that on June 25th 1894 Annie stood before a crowd of 500 supporters, including many suffragists, ready to set off around the world. She had been given two brief cycling lessons in the days leading up to the challenge, and was ready with a women’s Columbia safety cycle. That a woman was leaving her husband and children to fend for themselves while she took off around the world on a bike ALONE was a pretty radical feat at the time.
Before she departed she needed some money to get on her way. Savvy Annie had arranged for the spring water company Londonderry Lithia to sponsor her, handing over $100 in front of the crowd in exchange for an advertising plaque on her cycle – and of course the requirement that she change her name, thus Annie Londonderry was born!
The first part of Annie’s journey consisted of cycling across the United States, and proved to be more of a challenge than she had expected. In fact she came very close to giving up when she reached Chicago. Her women’s bicycle was desperately heavy and cycling in the full-skirted, heavy women’s dress of the time was restrictive and exhausting. At this stage of her journey Annie made two very wise decisions, losing the skirt and petticoats in favour of bloomers and ditching the woman’s bike for a considerably lighter men’s one. With renewed vigour she set off again and before long was on her way to France.
And so her epic journey continued, through France onto Egypt, Jerusalem and Yemen, across to Colombo, Singapore, China and Japan collecting signatures from the American consuls in each place she passed through to prove she had been there. To earn money along the way she became a living advert, with signs attached to her bike and clothing by companies keen to cash in on her increasing fame. She also sold signed photos and later gave lectures – for a fee of course.
Annie seems to have loved the limelight and enjoyed spinning fairly tall tales (and sometimes outright lies) to the press. At various times she told them she was a medical student and a law student, and told stories about her journey which were full of danger and threat, but most often entirely fabricated! The stories sold however, and helped to raise Annie’s celebrity, enabling her to demand greater sums of money from sponsors and fans.
There was also question about how much of her journey she was actually on her bicycle for; she certainly completed quite long stretches on boats and trains! However, technically the bet had not stipulated how many miles she should actually cycle, so she was still within the rules! Doubtless though, she did do a considerable amount of cycling, even continuing on her bike after an accident where she broke her wrist, and on one occasion when her bike had a puncture, opting to carry the cycle and walk rather than hop on a train.
In March 1895 she arrived back in America, landing in San Francisco. She cycled her way from East to West, finally arriving home in Boston on 24th September, almost exactly 15 months to the day that she had left.
The New York World described her epic adventure as “the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman.” She was a celebrity and for a while was given her own column in the New York World, where she wrote about her journey (with her usual amount of creative license!)
“I am a journalist and ‘a new woman,'” she wrote, “if that term means that I believe I can do anything that any man can do.”
Find out more…
That same great-grand-nephew has written a book about Annie’s round-the-world trip called Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride.
You can also find out more about the links between the advent of the bicycle and women’s emancipation in the book Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With Few Flat Tires Along the Way) by Sue Macy.
A play called SPIN was written about Annie by Evalyn Parry, see a great clip from it here: