In 1894 Annie Cohen Kopchovsky set out to bicycle around the world in 15 months as Annie Londonderry, and she did. Sort of.
Kopshovsky was a Boston newspaper ad saleswoman with a husband and three young children and a gift for promotion. She accepted a wager to repeat a circuit made by a man a year earlier. The terms: she had to earn her way around the globe, had to travel on bicycle, she could not accept gratuities, and she had to do it alone. For proof she would gather signatures along the way at American Consulates.
To get on her way, Kopchovsky needed a sponsor – and she found it in one of the large newspaper advertisers of the day: Londonderry Lithia Waters.
Lithia Waters were a health craze in the 1880s and 1890s. Most were made commercially by adding lithium carbonate to plain old water. But at various locations around the country, such as Georgia, Oregon and Arkansas, Lithium occurred naturally in spring water.
Londonderry, N.H. was home to one such spring. The spring had been used as a drinking water source as far back as anyone could remember. Settlers were made aware of it by Native American Indians who visited it.
In 1886, the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Co. took possession of the spring and launched its Londonderry Lithia Water. The company sold its product as a health tonic. It cured everything from “flatulent dyspepsia” to gout and rheumatism to Bright’s Disease and insomnia. Of course, lithium is still used today as a treatment for various mental illnesses.
The New York Times raved about the powers of Londonderry Lithia Water: DeSoto’s Fountain of Youth Seems to Have Been Found at Last one headline read. The company shouted to anyone that would listen that its product was superior to manufactured lithia water because of the natural properties that it gained by coming from the ground already imbued with lithium carbonate.
In addition to its pseudo-scientific claims, the company also needed some pizazz. A brazen, young cycling heroine seemed just the ticket. In June, Kopchovsky launched her cycling trip from Boston’s Beacon Hill. Londonderry Lithia Water presented her with a $100 check and she hung a placard bearing the company’s name on her 42-pound bicycle and pedaled away. She adopted the name Annie Londonderry for the remainder of her trip.
Annie bicycled as far as Chicago, but soon realized she would heading into the western United States in winter – not a desirable prospect – so she reversed course to New York and took a steamer to Europe. In France, bicycling mania was well established and Annie was greeted as a heroine. Along the way she dumped her dress, donning first bloomers and finally knickers fashioned from boy’s pants.
Her outlandish (for the times) dress merely added to her appeal. As she traveled, her stories grew more and more outlandish. She embellished her real story as she went, telling tall tales of being attacked and imprisoned on her journey. The public cared little as they snapped up her souvenir photos, and she added more sponsors as she travelled. No doubt she covered far more miles on steamers and trains than she did on a bicycle, a point which caused her critics to challenge her claim.
But the image of a feisty women cyclist breaking so many rules overrode whatever objections her supporters had about the claim to be bicycling around the world.
By the time Annie ended her journey in Chicago, in 1895, the novelty of her story had worn thin and the press was not paying much attention. As she would ride into towns, however, local cyclists would ride along with her and give her encouragement.