It's hard to imagine now, but there was a time when riding a bike was deemed "unsafe" and "unladylike." But in the late 1800s the "safety" bike (or "safety") rolled onto the scene and changed everything. Unlike previous iterations of the bicycle, the "safety" featured two similar sized wheels, a chain and gears. And as the name implied, the safety provided a safer, more stable ride.
Suddenly women, voluminous skirts notwithstanding, climbed aboard and started riding. One such woman was Annie Cohen Kopchovsky (aka Annie Londonderry), who at age 23 displayed a remarkable amount of chutzpah, moxie and dogged perseverance when she set out on an around-the-world cycling adventure.
Who Was Annie Kopchovsky?
Kopchovsky was born in Latvia in 1870 before emigrating to the United States and settling in the West End of Boston in 1875. She married Max Kopchovsky in 1888, who funnily enough was a peddler (get it? a peddler?). She had three children by 1892. At this point, millions of men and women had taken up cycling.
But not Kopchovsky, according to Peter Zheutlin, her great grandnephew, and the author of two books about his famous ancestor, "Spin: A Novel Based on a (Mostly) True Story" and "Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry's Extraordinary Ride."
"She was a working mother of three small children, which left little time for a hobby such as cycling," he says, in an email interview.
She might've liked the break. The family lived in a tenement flat and, in addition to running a busy household with three children under the age of 6, Kopchovsky sold advertising for several Boston newspapers. She was by all accounts good at her job. Her husband — a devout Orthodox Jew — spent much of his time studying the Torah or attending synagogue.
In his book, "Around the World on Two Wheels," Zheutlin writes, "Many Jewish women worked as a matter of economic necessity, torn between what most saw as their principal obligation — raising families and instilling a love of Judaism in their children — and the need to feed and clothe those families." For that reason, Zheutlin says, hustle was an admirable quality — and Kopchovsky had hustle.
She had no doubt heard of Thomas Stevens, the British man who was the first person to cycle across the U.S. and the world in 1884, and would certainly have read the 1889 chronicle of intrepid New York World journalist Nellie Bly, who set out to beat the record of Jules Verne's fictional character Phileas Fogg, circumnavigating the world in 80 days (which Bly did, finishing in 72 days). But back to Kopchovsky.
A Dream Is Born
A novice cyclist (two or three lessons at the most), she decided in February 1894 that she would make an attempt to become the first woman to bicycle around the world. Zheutlin wrote in his book, "the bicycle represented to Annie a literal vehicle to the fame, freedom and material wealth she so craved; her proposed journey could provide the opportunity to refashion her identity and create a new life for herself."
On June 25, 1894, Kopchovsky announced to a crowd of supporters that she was leaving, telling them she was making the trip to settle a bet between two Boston wealthy merchants that no woman could travel around the world by bicycle. She would cycle around the world in 15 months without any money, and with only the clothes on her back. She would have to earn her way and return with $5,000 in her pocket. If she did it, she would win $10,000.
"There remains a lot of mystery surrounding the origins of her trip, including whether it might have been part of a marketing scheme for Columbia Bicycles," says Zheutlin. "But she earned money as she went in several ways: She sold space on her clothing and her bike to advertisers (she pioneered sports-related marketing for women!) including her namesake sponsor, the Londonderry Lithia Springs Water Company of New Hampshire [the company paid $100 to finance the journey]. As her fame grew, she was able to sell souvenir photos of herself and her autograph and gave lectures about her travels at which an admission fee was charged. She also sometimes made guest appearances with her bike in stores along the way to attract customers, for which she was also paid."
And She Was Off
Early in her travels, Kopchovsky was dubbed "Annie Londonderry" (after her sponsor), which was probably as much a public relations move as anything else. But the journey was not without trouble:
- She wasted time early in her journey, spending a full month in New York City ostensibly in the name of publicity.
- The bicycle, itself, slowed her down. Weighing 42 pounds (19 kilograms), the woman's bike built by Columbia Bicycles wasn't built for speed. Once in Chicago, she switched to a men's Sterling model weighing 21 pounds (9.5 kilograms).
- Road conditions were often rugged.
- Originally, she wore skirts and bloomers, but by the time she reached Chicago she shed the skirt for riding bloomers only and eventually wore a man's suit.
Interestingly, Kopchovsky only made it as far west as Chicago because she realized at the pace she was riding she'd never make her goal. Instead, she hopped on her lighter bike and rode back to New York where she caught a boat to France and continued via bicycle, train and boat to finish the journey. She logged thousands of miles on her bicycle, riding through France, North Africa, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Saigon and Hong Kong before hopping another steamer for San Francisco and another bike ride back to Boston. She didn't always divulge that information, however, often embellishing her speeches and interviews with tales of adventures hunting Bengal tigers, dodging bullets or being waylaid by robbers.
"Annie was a show woman at heart and a gifted raconteur," says Zheutlin. "She set out to make a sensation of herself and had a keen sense of how to build her fame. If that meant stretching the truth to make herself more quotable to a reporter, or more entertaining to an audience, she had no qualms about doing that. Fame was her fuel and the more famous she became the easier it was to earn the money she needed to keep going."
The Journey Ends
Kopchovsky did finish the journey Thursday, Sept. 12, 1895, in Chicago — 14 days ahead of schedule — according to a brief New York Times report. She claimed to have received the $10,000, but in a recent New York Times obituary, it appears she never received the money from the wager and, in his reporting, Zheutlin determined the wager never existed.
She returned to her family and even had another child in 1897. Cycling was never an important part of her life again. She left her family again, living briefly in northern California. When she returned, she and her husband lived in the Bronx, New York, operating a small clothing business. In the 1920s, their business was destroyed by a fire and, Zheutlin wrote, Kopchovsky used the insurance money to start another business in Manhattan, called Grace Strap & Novelty, "with a man named Feldman she met at a Horn & Hardart restaurant." Kopchovsky died of a stroke Nov. 11, 1947. She was 77 years old.