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, 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 a 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.
Why Annie Londonderry
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, physicians still use lithium today to treat various mental illnesses.
In addition to its pseudo-scientific claims, the company also needed some pizazz. A brazen, young cycling heroine seemed just the ticket.
Around the World in 15 Months
Kopchovsky, then about 23, launched her cycling trip from Boston’s Beacon Hill in June. Londonderry Lithia Water presented her with a $100 check. She then 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, riding a lighter bicycle given to her by the Sterling Cycle Works. She then took a steamer to Europe.
In France, people greeted her as a a heroine because of the bicycling mania had swept the country. 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 attacks and imprisonment on her journey. People 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.
Toward the end of her journey, the novelty of her story had worn thin. The press paid little attention. As she rode into each town, however, local cyclists rode along with her and gave her encouragement.
Annie Londonderry rode into Chicago on Sept. 12, 1895, 14 days ahead of schedule. She then returned to her family in Boston.
Upon receiving an offer to write about her trip, she moved her family to New York and wrote an article for the New York Sunday World described as “highly suspect.”
“I am a journalist and a new woman,” it began. The new woman had another baby, then moved to Northern California for a time to work as a saleswoman. She then returned to New York, where she and her husband ran a small clothing company.
Annie Londonderry died in obscurity on Nov. 11, 1947.
This story last updated in 2022.