Annie Londonderry...A Flash From The Way Past

This year over the holidays, I received a gift from the past, the way past.  In 1895, the first woman cycled around the world, her name was Annie Londonderry.  Annie's  great-grandnephew contacted me to wish me well on my adventures and to let me know that Annie would be proud of me.  Due to the fact that I am humbled beyond words literally, I asked Peter Zheutlin, Annie's great-grandnephew to share some stories about Annie.  Here is what he had to say...

It was, declared one New York newspaper, “the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman.” It could have been a story about Loretta Henderson’s intrepid two-wheeled ride around the world in 2010. But the newspaper was The New York Sunday World, and the article was published in October, 1895, more than a century before Loretta Henderson’s remarkable journey.

The woman extolled by the The Sunday World became known around the globe as Annie Londonderry, a name she borrowed from the first corporate sponsor of her bicycle ride around the world, the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company of Nashua, N.H.

She was reportedly set in motion by a novel, high-stakes wager that required Miss Londonderry not only to circle the earth by bicycle in 15 months, but to earn $5,000 en route, as well. 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.

Traveling with only a change of clothes and a pearl-handled revolver, Miss Londonderry earned her way, in part, by turning her bicycle and her body into a mobile billboard, carrying advertising banners and ribbons through the streets of cities around the world. Thus adorned, and riding a men’s bicycle and a man’s riding suit, Annie turned every Victorian expectation of female propriety on its ear.

At first blush, it would be hard to imagine a more unlikely candidate for a ‘round the world bicycle trip than Annie Londonderry. Annie Londonderry was, in fact, Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, a Jewish, working mother who pedaled out of Boston leaving her husband and three small children behind. Physically unprepossessing -- about 5 feet 3 inches tall and a little over 100 pounds –  she had never ridden a bicycle in her life.

But Annie proved to be remarkably well equipped for the journey. She was resourceful, cunning, and willful, a master of public relations, a consummate self-promoter, and a skillful creator of her own myth. Indeed, as Annie Cohen Kopchovsky reinvented herself as a new woman – the daring globetrotter and adventurer, Mlle. Londonderry – she turned herself from a working class mother from the tenements of Boston into one of the most celebrated women of the gay ‘90s.

Annie’s fame grew, in part, because her journey took place at the intersection of two of the most powerful social phenomena of the 1890s: the women’s movement for social equality and the bicycle craze. Annie’s genius was to seize on these two social forces in her pursuit of fame and fortune. As Susan B. Anthony said in 1896, the year after Annie’s journey was complete, “bicycling has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”

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