Until 1894 there were no female sport stars, no product endorsement deals, and no young mothers with the chutzpah to circle the globe on a bicycle. Annie Kopchovsky changed all that.
In honor of Women’s History Month in March 2009, Peter Zheutlin came to the Durand-Hedden House to talk about the extraordinary adventures of his great-grand-aunt, who overturned notions of Victorian propriety by bicycling around the world, raising money as she went along.
As Zheutlin writes in his entertaining book, Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride, Annie Kopchovsky was a Jewish immigrant and working mother of three living with her peddler husband in a Boston tenement.
Two wealthy merchants made a high-stakes bet that a woman could not ride around the world on a bicycle, as a man named Thomas Stevens had done a few years earlier. Annie rose to the challenge.
When the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company of New Hampshire offered to become the first of her many sponsors, she became Annie Londonderry. She left Boston in June 1894 for Chicago in a riding skirt, on a 42-pound woman’s bicycle, with a revolver and a change of underwear. So began one of the great escapades and publicity stunts of the Victorian Age.
Exchanging a Skirt for Bloomers
In Chicago, Sterling Cycle Works gave her a 21-pound men’s bicycle. As wearing a skirt on the new bike was virtually impossible, she changed to a man’s riding costume with bloomers.
“I firmly believe that if I had worn skirts I would not have been able to make the trip,” Annie wrote later. But mindful of Victorian mores, she was quick to add, “It must not be thought that I lost the attention which is supposed to be associated with feminine apparel. I was everywhere treated with courtesy and ….received no less than 200 proposals of marriage.”
Her journey was to include a frigid ride through France (where money she had earned on the Atlantic crossing was stolen) to Suez to Shanghai, and an encounter with an outlaw in El Paso, Texas. She made more than $5,000 along the way by lecturing, carrying advertising, and showing photographs she had taken during her trip.