Annie Londonderry

The First Woman to Bicycle Around the World

Annie Londonderry

The First Woman to Bicycle around the World

About Annie Londonderry

On June 25, 1894, Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, a young mother of three small children, stood before a crowd of 500 friends, family, suffragists, and curious onlookers at the Massachusetts State House. Then, declaring she would circle the world, she climbed onto a 42-pound Columbia bicycle and “sailed away like a kite down Beacon Street.”

Fifteen months later one New York newspaper called it “the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman.”

photo of Annie LondonderryThe trip was purportedly set in motion by a wager that required Annie not only to circle the earth by bicycle in 15 months, but to earn $5,000 en route, as well. A $10,000 prize, an enormous sum in the 1890s, awaited her if she succeeded. This was no mere test of a woman’s physical endurance and mental fortitude; it was a test of a woman’s ability to fend for herself in the world.

Annie turned every Victorian notion of female propriety on its ear. Not only did she abandon, temporarily, her role of wife and mother, but for most of the journey she rode a man’s bicycle attired in a man’s riding suit. She earned her way selling photographs of herself, appearing as an attraction in stores, and by turning herself into a mobile billboard, renting space on her body and her bicycle to advertisers eager to benefit from this colorful spectacle on wheels.

Outlandish, brash, and charismatic – a master of public relations, a consummate self-promoter, and a skillful creator of her own myth – Annie was a woman of boundless chutzpah. Indeed, as Annie Cohen Kopchovsky reinvented herself as a new woman – the daring globetrotter and adventurer, “Mlle. Annie Londonderry” – she became one of the most celebrated women of the gay ’90s. 

Photo Gallery

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This promotional piece for the Sterling Cycle Works appeared in the May 11, 1895 edition of The Bearings, a Chicago-based cycling periodical.
Annie as she was depicted in two cycling periodicals, The Bearings and Cycling Life, in October 1894, after acquiring her Sterling bicycle.
Annie began her trip on a 42-pound drop-frame (women’s) Columbia bicycle ill-suited for long-distance travel, and attired in long skirts. When she reached Chicago in September 1894, the Sterling Cycle Works of Chicago offered her a men’s Sterling weighing approximately 21 pounds. The men's frame meant that riding in skirts was no longer feasible and Annie took to wearing bloomers, and later a men’s riding suit. The Sterling, like the Columbia, had a single gear and no free-wheel mechanism, which meant if the wheels were spinning the pedals were spinning, too. But unlike the Columbia, the Sterling had no brake. The device on the front wheel is a cyclometer, an odometer for bicycles. An American diplomat in Paris gave Annie the American flag wrapped around the frame. This photograph of Annie's bike was taken in San Francisco in early spring 1895.
This advertisement for the Londonderry Lithia Springs Water Company appeared in the Rocky Mountain News of Denver on August 12, 1895. The company, based in Nashua, N.H., paid Annie to hang an advertising placard on her bike and to assume the "Londonderry" name.
Annie as depicted in an illustration that accompanied her first-person account of her trip published in the New York World on October 20, 1895. The article appeared under the byline “Nellie Bly, Jr.” The original Nellie Bly was the most famous woman journalist of her day. In late 1889, as a publicity stunt for the World, she set off on a ‘round the world trip to try and break the fictional “record” of Jules Verne's character Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days. Traveling by steamship, train and carriage, Bly made the trip in under 73 days.
The images in the lantern slides Annie collected and used to illustrate her lectures were often exquisite. That these fragile glass slides survived multiple shipments by ship and train during the course of Annie's trip is remarkable. That they were found intact more than 100 years later seemed equally remarkable.
Annie was a consummate self-promoter and an inveterate storyteller. She staged this photograph near San Francisco in the spring of 1895. It was among the lantern slides she used to illustrate lectures she gave across the American west in 1895 to earn money, lectures filled with fantastic tales of danger and high adventure.
Many of the lantern slides Annie collected to illustrate her lectures were of exotics, sure to be of interest to curious Americans in small towns like Tucson and El Paso. International travel was something most Americans only dreamed of in the 1890s and Annie turned them into armchair adventurers.