Annie Londonderry, First Woman to Cycle Around The World

Chloe Effron // Wikimedia Commons (Londonderry), iStock (Background)
Chloe Effron // Wikimedia Commons (Londonderry), iStock (Background) / Chloe Effron // Wikimedia Commons (Londonderry), iStock (Background)

The grandest accomplishment of bicyclist Annie Londonderry might seem like little more than a peculiar publicity stunt today. But within the context of her time, her trip around the world was downright revolutionary.

On a sunny summer day in Boston, June 25, 1894, Londonderry was readying herself to make history. Five hundred people had gathered around the steps of the Massachusetts State House, eager to see her off on her momentous journey. Londonderry wasn't new to travel: She had already traversed Europe and the Atlantic Ocean to emigrate from Latvia to the United States. Of course, back then she was Annie Cohen. At 18, she'd married Max Kopchovsky, taken his name and within four years borne three of his children. Now at 24, this spirited young woman made a new name for herself as part of a branding deal with Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company. For $100, she agreed to affix a promotional placard to her bike, and to take their brand name as her own as she made her way around the world.

Cycling had not only hit its peak popularity by the 1890s but also became inextricably tied to early feminism. The bicycle gave women more freedom to go wherever they wanted, whenever they saw fit. It made women feel powerful, strong, and self-reliant, and became the favored conveyance of suffragettes like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who once said: "Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. … I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel." 

Yet not everyone was thrilled by women's interest in autonomy through cycling. Many scorned the new bloomer fashions that made the activity easier. Doctors concocted the condition "bicycle face," which essentially attempted to play on females' supposed vanity in order to dissuade them from riding. The 1895 Literary Digest described this affliction thusly: "Over-exertion, the upright position on the wheel, and the unconscious effort to maintain one's balance tend to produce a wearied and exhausted 'bicycle face' … usually flushed, but sometimes pale, often with lips more or less drawn, and the beginning of dark shadows under the eyes, and always with an expression of weariness."

Londonderry was well aware of the controversy over women cyclists, but this clever wife and mother was more than happy to be a poster girl for the movement, especially if it meant she could make bank. Her trip around the world was no lark—it was a bet, and one masterfully planned to play upon the trends of her time. Though specifics on its origin have been largely lost to time, it's believed two affluent "clubmen" in Boston laid down the challenge. Londonderry had 15 months to not only circle the globe from her bicycle seat, but to earn $5,000 along the way (about $135,000 today). Jules Verne's 1873 novel Around the World in Eighty Days had ignited public interest in such ambitious endeavors. (Nellie Bly—best known for her harrowing reporting from Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island—underwent a similar voyage later, in 1889.) By linking in the controversial bicycling bit, Londonderry concocted a journey that positively captured the world's imagination.

Though our headstrong heroine set out from Boston in a long skirt considered ideal for this Victorian era, she soon swapped to a more functional men's riding suit, which sparked criticisms of impropriety and even some accusations that she was no woman at all. She didn't sweat the outrage, but relished the headlines it scored.

A masterful self-promoter, Londonderry spun wild—and often conflicting—tales to newspapers about her route, and even her background. Over the course of her journey, she'd claimed to be an orphan, an accountant, an affluent heiress, a Harvard medical student, a lawyer, the relative of a congressman, and—perhaps most curiously—the inventor of a new form of stenography. Readers and reporters couldn't get enough, and she soon became an international sensation. Her tall tales of brushes with death, frozen rivers, German royalty, dangerous superstition, and vicious tigers were recounted in newspapers far and wide. This was all part of the savvy businesswoman's plan. Along with the Londonderry spring water placard, she sold more ad space on her bike. But that's not all: Having cultivated controversy and celebrity, she also arranged for paid appearances, and sold promotional photographs of herself to fans eager to be a part of her adventure.

Traveling with a small suitcase that contained a change of clothes and a pearl-handled revolver, she cycled from Boston to New York (after a side trip to Chicago), then sailed to Le Havre, France. From there she cycled south to Marseilles, heading to Alexandria, Colombo, Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, employing a steamship when necessary. By March of 1895, Londonderry and her bike had made it to San Francisco. After returning to Boston on September 24, 1895, the New York World declared her globe-trekking “the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman.” But she wasn't through yet.

The following month, Londonderry moved her family to New York City, where she channeled her drive and all she'd learned about storytelling and the press into a fresh identity: The New Woman. That was the byline of her column for the New York World, where she wrote: "I am a journalist and 'a new woman,' if that term means that I believe I can do anything that any man can do."

Annie Londonderry's feat was a challenge on many fronts: navigation, physical endurance, mental fortitude, and entrepreneurial creativity. This zany publicity stunt not only earned her the world's eye, but also proved the capabilities of a woman on her own in the world. Not long after writing about her journey, she retired from the reporter grind to focus on raising her family. And despite all the headlines she'd made, she faded into obscurity. That is, until 2007, when her great nephew Peter Zheutlin reminded us all about this remarkable woman with the book Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry's Extraordinary Ride.

Annie "Londonderry" Kopchovsky passed away in 1947, having successfully traveled the world on her own terms.