Annie “Londonderry” Kopchovsky was the first woman to make a tour around the world by bicycle, challenging her own physical capabilities, the slight economic resources and the many prejudices in Victorian times. She was a Latvian Jew, emigrated to the United States, married to Max and mother of three children. When she was 23 years old she decided to engage in a journey 15 months long on the saddle of her bicycle. This is
Annie Londonderry’s true story, left from Boston on the 25th June 1894 to make the tour around the world by bicycle.
A forgotten event that has come to light thanks to Peter Zheutlin’s researches, Annie’s grandchild. Many journal articles have been written on the extraordinary and peculiar enterprise by Kopchovsky. It is thanks to the daily newspapers that it was possible to recompose this adventure born by a supposed bet of 10.000 dollars that had to resolve a dispute between two gentlemen of Boston. The question was: “can or cannot a woman make a tour around the world by bicycle as Thomas Stevens had made 10 years before?”
Annie tried the enterprise leaving her husband and three children and assuming the surname Londonderry like the mineral water company “Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company” that had given her a reward in change of advertisement.
While the popularity of cycling reached its peak in the middle of the Nineties of the XIX century,
and the women led by personalities as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony challenged the preconstituted social order, for Annie the bicycle represented a possibility to remodel her own identity. Departed from Boston she stopped in Chicago to get togeher some money working as a waitress before starting the long journey. The first routes by bicycle were really an enterprise!
Dressed in the perfect victorian style of that time with a long black skirt, a tight-fitting blouse, a blazer and a straw hat, Annie departed with a Columbia bicycle and no training! Only determination and ambition brought Mrs. Londonderry, with her bicycle of 19 kg, to Chicago. In town she left the Columbia bicycle for an ivory and golden Sterling, much lighter, but with the typical masculine diamond frame. This needed a substantial change of clothes…
In the meantime the American journals started to write about Annie’s journey with astonishment, admiration but also incredulity in front of an enterprise that no woman had never tried before. This is what the Daily News affirmed:
It is rather probable that this tour around the world is not at all contemplated, but that is only a project ideated by the productor of the bicycle to promote his brand.
Despite they spoke about a heroine or a cheater, the name Annie Londonderry became famous and the young lady was welcomed as a celebrity at every new destination. Mrs. Kopchovsky knew that people were in love with the adventures around the world and with those who enterprised them, and hoped that the press and the public once proved her values, would follow her efforts with great interest.
To give you an idea of the historical period, a few years before, in 1872, Jules Verne had captured the spirit of that time writing “The tour of the world in 80 days.” In the same period Thomas Stevens was the first man to pedal around the world employing three years and 21.700 km by bicycle.
How did she get an accomodation for the night? Selling advertisement spaces on her bicycle, photos that portrayed her, pins and moreover entertaining conferences on her journeyss. When it was not possible to find an accomodation she slept in the open, in a barn o…in a cemetery.
This bet put Annie at the center of a collective wide debate on women’s equality.
Incarnating the symbol of the “New Woman” Annie collected hopes and aspirations of millions of Americans. Right in the middle of the ’90s of the Nineteenth century there was a boom of the bicycle in America!
Only in 1897 more than 2.000.000 bicycles were sold in the United States. One each thirty people. The popularity of cycling was so great that huge expositions dedicated to the bicycle were set up periodically, hundreads of producers made profit by this development, and new factories and bicycle shops continued to open frequently.
The bicycle obtained a primary role in the feminine emancipation of the XIX century.
In 1896 Susan B. Anthony declared that to ride a bike “had done much more for women emancipation than anything else”. Women dared a more libertine manner of clothing, skirts became shorter, arms and decolleté were uncovered. Away with corsets and blouses with high collars.
The sports dresses involved a wide variety of women in a discussion on the way to dress. At a time when rarely common women challenged the dictates of fashion, the novelty of sports offered an occasion to renew the feminine dress
Mrs. Londonderry’s fame grew as much as her talent in riding a bicycle.
Her slender body became more muscular. She became a clever ciclyst so much so as to be able to compete with men of her age. To gain the bet in the accorded time Annie, at a certain point of her journey, started to mess up the cards. If the crossing of the United States was enterprised by bike, we cannot confirm that of the oriental crossing. After having cycled from Paris to Marseille, the journey continued towards east on a vapour boat. Mrs. Londonderry stopped in some towns as Jerusalem, Bombay, Calcutta, Ceylon and Singapore.
Always with alternative means, trains or boats, she reached China, where she became interested in the political happenings of the Nation, in particular in the fight between the chinese army and the japanese one. After having barely visited Japan, Annie left again for San Francisco, where the most difficult part of the journey awaited her:
to ride on her Sterling passing through southern California and the Arizona desert.
When she arrived in Boston, after having made the world tour by bicycle, the cyclometer of her Sterling counted 15.455 km. In fifteen months Annie Londonderry affirmed to have covered a distance of 41.841 km around the globe. She had gained the 5000 dollars requested (maybe some more, that she had given to her family) and she had won the 10.000 dollars of the bet.
Even if she was helped going by train or boat, the rebel, unconventional, clever Annie remains the first woman to have accomplished the tour around the world by bicycle.
She challenged the prejudices of society at the end of the Nineteenth century, on a men’s bike and dressed like a man, obtaining more or less 400 marriage proposals during those 15 months of journey. Moreover she is to be considered among the pioneers of the sports marketing for the athletes of the feminine sex.
At the end of the journey she came back to her family and she opened a clothing trade manufactory in New York. It has been a fortune to come across the book that tells her story. If Annie really won the 10.000 dollars is not clear.. In any case Mrs. Londonderry’s journey was a success!