Annie Londonderry is famous for having cycled around the world between 1894 and 1895.
We say ‘famous’ – only people who obsessively Google ‘women’s cycling’ have ever heard of her. But more people need to know about her. Because she was an incredible woman that used a bicycle as a vehicle by which to make a statement to the world about what women are capable of.
The best part of learning about Annie Londonderry is actually discovering her less than heroic qualities. She was a shameless self-publicist and loved the fame her journey brought her. And this fame allowed her to not only make some money, but also to systematically challenge all of the values society at the time held dear when it came to women. So here, we highlight her good and bad qualities. Because we think they’re all important. And anyway, everyone loves an underdog.
1. Annie Londonderry decided to cycle around the globe in 15 months…
She was, reportedly, doing it to settle a wager between two rich Boston businessmen. At the time, ‘settling a wager’ was the excuse to do something ridiculous du jour, like how people do stuff now to ‘detox’.
2. … but she was rather liberal in her use of trains and ferries.
Annie set off from Boston and went west. But it took her months to only get as far as Chicago. She ended up turning back to the east coast and heading to New York.
From there, she took a boat to France. Then she cycled through France, before getting on a boat that would eventually land her in Singapore. Sure, she cycled at some of the stops along the way (a stint in Jerusalem she raved about was an unlikely but possible stopover), but a huge chunk of her journey happened via steamer.
3. She left behind her husband and three young children to complete the ride.
When she admitted to having a family in interviews, she was quoted as saying “I didn’t want to spend my life at home with a baby under my apron every year.”
4. Her name wasn’t Annie Londonderry at all.
It was Annie Cohen Kopchovsky. The new moniker allowed for safer travelling: she was a Jewish woman in the late 1800s, after all.
5. She made money through advertising.
Annie attached posters and banners to her bicycle to advertise various companies; most notably Sterling Bicycles in Chicago. She also continued to gain contracts and lump sums throughout the journey – especially in France where she (unsurprisingly) proved incredibly popular.
In fact, her moniker of ‘Londonderry’ was part of an advertising deal with the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company.
6. She lied. A lot.
The wager (and thus the $10,000 prize money she was reportedly going to receive) was entirely fictitious. The Boston Journal reported: “The crowd [at the State House] were incredulous about her receiving any such sum as $10,000 upon her return. Many expressed the opinion that it was simply an advertising scheme from start to finish.”
It’s much more likely that the trip was conceived as a vehicle for Annie’s own self-promotion, and to satisfy her thirst for adventure. Perhaps with a pinch of influence from Colonel Albert Pope, who owned the bicycle company that made the Columbia bike she first set off on.
She also revelled in lying to the press about her past and her travels: she described herself as an orphan, a law student, medical student and wealthy heiress among other fanciful backstories.
She also created vast amounts of material about her journey through India and China. Which she didn’t do. She was on a boat the whole time. Yet she told stories of her hunting Bengal tigers and dodging bullets in the lectures she gave across the United States.
7. She was a bit of a rubbish cyclist.
In Around The World On Two Wheels by Peter Zheutlin, we are told that “Annie averaged between eight and ten miles per hour on smooth roads, and a good deal less on poor roads, very slow by modern cycling standards.”
Then, later on in her journey: “It took the more than five weeks to make the four-hundred-mile-stretch to Los Angeles from San Francisco. Had they walked, they could have made it to Los Angeles in half the time.”
Maybe things would have been different if they’d had Strava!
8. She knew that clothing was important.
Annie talked about her choice of clothing as much as possible. She made the move from skirts to bloomers to a man’s suit during the course of her journey, slowly becoming more comfortable and more of an affront to those who thought the sight of a woman cycling was uncouth.
The Omaha World Herald reported: “Miss Londonderry expressed the opinion that the advent of the bicycle will create a reform in female dress that will be beneficial. She believes that in the near future all women, whether of high or low degree, will bestride the wheel, except possibly the narrow-minded, long-skirted, lean and lank element.”
9. Her bicycle was mental.
She began her journey on a Columbia bicycle that weighed nearly 20kg and didn’t allow for freewheeling. When she got up too much speed, she had to take her legs off the pedals and pop them on the coaster brackets mounted on the forks in case her skirts got caught in the pedals.
In Chicago she (thankfully!) picked up a Sterling brand bicycle that was around 9kg.
10. She actually did it.
Annie returned to Boston 15 months to the day after she departed. And sure, she may have taken a few steam-powered shortcuts. But she cycled a hell of a long way all the same.
She set off carrying only a change of clothes and a pearl-handled revolver, and ended up seeing Chicago, New York, Paris, Marseilles, Alexandria, Colombo, Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong, Shanghai and San Francisco. She also become a global celebrity in the process.
“What Annie accomplished with her bicycle in 1894-95 was a tour de force of moxie, self-promotion and athleticism. Though she was a skilled raconteur and gifted self-promoter with a penchant for embellishment and tall tales, she was also, as the evidence, shows, an accomplished cyclist who covered thousands of miles by bicycle during her journey.”
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