Two Wheels and Tall Tales: The Journey of Annie Londonderry

by Ellie Hendricks

Of all past inventions, bicycles can be pinpointed as one of the key material developments in the promotion of women’s rights. Through providing transport and freedom in the 19th century, bicycles and the social phenomenon they brought with them represented a new personal liberty that few women of the time would have experienced before – to the point that notable activist Susan B. Anthony stated that bicycles have “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”

Annie Londonderry circa 1890 (William J. Root, Chicago, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

This attitude is embodied in the story of Annie ‘Londonderry’ Kopchovsky, the first woman to cycle the world.  Born Annie Cohen, she had moved with her family to Boston from Latvia in 1875. Charismatic and outgoing, Annie worked in advertising before marrying Max Kopchovsky in 1888, after which she became the mother of three children. Annie Kopchovsky was a bright and determined individual and in 1894 she planned and carried out an arduous and highly publicised journey that captured the imagination of the country.

The challenge that Annie took upon herself was to cycle the world in 15 months, supposedly as the result of a wager with prize money set at $10,000.  It’s questionable whether this bet really happened for several reasons, not least because Annie had little experience of riding a bicycle before her journey. It was instead likely just a fabrication to build excitement for the trip.  In fact, many elements of her story raised doubts and as her trip progressed it became clear that, first and foremost, Annie was a storyteller and gifted self-promoter.  

To begin with, Annie Kopchovsky took the name Annie Londonderry, after The Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company of Nashua, New Hampshire – partly to avoid anti-Semitism and partly to boost her profile This was to be the first of many promotional deals and she would often have a banner on the bike from companies that bought sign space. Her journey started on a heavy 42-pound Columbia bicycle, carrying a set of clothes and a pearl handled revolver.

Setting off from Massachusetts State House on the 27th of June 1894, the initial part of the journey proved the most difficult and Londonderry only averaged eight to ten miles a day. It was only after moving to a lighter bike, an Expert Model E Light Roadster, that the journey really took off.  Other approaches to the trip were also taken and while she had left Boston in a long skirt and corset, Annie quickly came to wear bloomers and men’s riding clothing for the rest of the journey, for practicalities sake.

The technicalities of Londonderry’s journey have always been a point of interest as, although she was undeniably the first woman to cycle the world, she often took ferries and trains and sometimes skipped whole countries from the route. There was however no minimum cycling distance in the bet and, despite the questionable travel routes, Annie still passed through a huge portion of the world, garnering more fans and publicity as she went. 

Annie Londonderry, studio Toune, Boston circa 1896.
(Studio Tourne, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Annie Londonderry’s advertising savvy meant she earnt money as she travelled and as she progressed on her journey she took with her outlandish tales of the countries she’d visited.  When back in the United States, Annie would recount stories of Japanese prisons and tiger hunting trips with German aristocracy. Her backstory developed too, at different points claiming to be an orphan, a medical student, a law student and an heiress with a great fortune and, while these tales were doubted, they heavily added to the romanticism of her achievements.

“the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman.”

In the end, Annie Londonderry completed her journey with time to spare and arrived back in Boston on the 12th of September 1895.  After seeing the world, she returned to her home as a celebrity and an experienced athlete. Despite the exaggerations of her stories, Londonderry’s feats were undeniably remarkable and it was reported by a New York newspaper as “the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman.” She enjoyed the fame immensely and continued to give lectures, cycling displays, and sell merchandise.

Following her journey, Annie put serious cycling aside and instead became a saleswoman, until her death in 1947.  Sadly, while her contribution to early female sports was significant, over the years Annie’s notoriety died down and her achievements became largely forgotten.

In recent years, Peter Zheutlin, Annie Londonderry’s great-nephew, released a book on her journey.  Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride explores who this charismatic, fascinating woman was and how she captured the public imagination. A second book by Zheutlin on Annie Londonderry is available to buy from June 2021 at annielondonderry.com.


Recommended Reading:

https://totalwomenscycling.com/lifestyle/10-facts-annie-londonderry

Peter Zheutlin ‘Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride’

https://annielondonderry.com


About the Author:

Ellie is an MA Museum Studies graduate from the South of England with a keen interest in ‘history from below’ and while she has a particular fondness for that of the English Medieval period, Ellie is enthusiastic about most adventuresome historical figures (particularly women).  She has a passion for the past and for making these stories exciting and accessible, this has been explored through several multimedia routes during the UK lockdowns and some examples can be seen on her Instagram page @alittlebitof_history.

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