The First Woman to Bicycle Around the World
This week the League of Women Voters of Napa County is featuring a most unlikely heroine. Many details of Annie Londonderry’s adventures bicycling around the globe in 1894–1895 are shrouded in mystery; however, her popular accounts inspired many women and caused much controversy by demonstrating that a regular housewife and mother could show physical endurance, mental fortitude, and the ability to freely fend for herself. As the “racey” label indicates, Olivia Brion’s Russian River Pinot Noir was made in homage to Annie Londonderry’s exploits. It is one of four Olivia Brion wines being offered in the League’s Give!Guide campaign. Everyone who donates to the League through the end of December will be entered into a drawing of four Olivia Brion wines.
When Annie Cohen was five, she and her Jewish family moved from Latvia to Boston. When she was 18, she became Mrs. Simon Kopchovsky, the wife of an Orthodox Jewish peddler. She had three children by the time she was 22. To make ends meet, she got a job selling advertising space for several Boston newspapers. In 1877, Thomas Stevens was the first person to bicycle around the world. By the 1890s, bicycling had become a craze for men and women alike. So, a campaign for a woman to attempt the global trip was a natural next media goal. But this gig for Annie Kopchovsky? A Jewess when there was widespread anti-Semitism? Married with three children ages five, three, and two? No bicycling experience? Only 5’3” and 100 pounds? Her job selling newspaper ads was the likely path to this remarkable adventure. Fun Historical note: The freedom that bicycles gave to the lives of American women became intertwined with a burgeoning women's movement. In 1896, Susan B. Anthony said that bicycling had "done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world." In 1894, two rich Boston men allegedly wagered $10,000 that no woman could travel the world on a bike in 15 months and earn $5,000 while doing it. While the bet remains unproven, Annie’s adventure was based on these goals and she embarked on her trip with two paying sponsors. She began her ride on a 42-pound Columbia bicycle, whose producer no doubt provided seed money for the trip, and she agreed to use the last name of Londonderry to publicize the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company (with a placard attached to the back wheel of her bike). On June 27, 1894 (age 24), Annie “Londonderry” set out from Boston to Chicago, arriving three months later and 20 pounds lighter. There, she switched her major sponsorship to Sterling Cycling Company, now riding the faster and lighter Sterling Roadster. To receive her cash prize, she had to complete her circumnavigation to Chicago in a year. Realizing she couldn’t cross the Rockies in winter, she headed east, arriving in New York City in late November. Booking passage on a ship, she landed in France in early December. From then on, Annie saved much precious time traveling by boat and train, taking day trips by bicycle to promote her journey. Promote she did. She wore the ribbons, buttons, and signs of various sponsors on her bicycle and person. She sold souvenir pins and autographed photos of herself. She notified the press of her scheduled arrivals and gave cycling demonstrations or lectures wherever she went. She was called “Nelly Bly Jr.” because of her entrepreneurial skills and must have easily collected the requisite $5,000 during her travels. Annie’s dress changed radically as she rode. She started off wearing a long skirt, corset, and high collar, soon changing to bloomers (an early version of culottes), and eventually preferring to wear a man’s tighter-fitting biking suit (scandalous!). She often rode with other people she met along favorite cycling routes, both in the United States and abroad. She clocked riding time in at least Egypt, Israel, Yemen, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Vietnam, Hong Kong, China, and Korea. She was always ready with tales of derring-do, mostly false, such as hunting tigers in India and spending time in a Japanese prison with a bullet wound. But she had plenty of true close calls: an accident in France caused her to ride with one bandaged foot propped up on her handlebars. Toward the end of the trip, she was almost killed by a runaway horse and wagon, and then broke her wrist by crashing into a group of pigs. Sailing from Japan, Annie arrived in San Francisco in late March 1895. Traveling south to Los Angeles and across the southwest, she got to Chicago on September 12, 1895, collected her $10,000, and made it back to Boston before the 15-month deadline of September 27, 1895. Annie immediately moved the family to New York City and wrote an account of her trip, which was published in the New York World with the headline “The Most Extraordinary Journey Ever Taken by a Woman.” The article began, “I am a journalist and a ‘new woman,’ if that term means that I believe I can do anything that any man can do.” After her brief burst of fame, this master of self-promotion and creator of her own myth occasionally participated in cycling races and demonstrations but died in obscurity at age 77.