History of balloon airmail: 19th-century Parisian letters sent by balloon.

How 19th-Century Parisians Under Siege Improvised a System of Airmail by Balloon

How 19th-Century Parisians Under Siege Improvised a System of Airmail by Balloon

The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Dec. 9 2015 11:34 AM

How 19th-Century Parisians Under Siege Improvised a System of Airmail by Balloon

The Siege of Paris, one of the more dramatic events of the Franco-Prussian War, began on Sept. 19, 1870, and ended on Jan. 28, 1871. As days turned into months, food supply became a matter of great concern. Even the city zoo’s charismatic pair of elephants—Castor and Pollux—ended up on the dining room table (though this feast was more a matter of wealthy elites showing off their exotic tastes than a sign of the city's starvation). 

Parisians suffered just as much from their isolation as from hunger, but they found an ingenious solution to mitigate this: balloons. The city’s train stations were transformed into balloon factories, and more than 60 globes managed to breach the Prussian iron belt, carrying in their gondolas improvised aeronauts (from fairground balloonists to sailors who had never conducted an ascent) and millions of letters.

Due to limitations on the weight of these letters, Parisians toyed with ways to convey information. Several newspaper/letter hybrids appeared during the siege. These sheets offered a summary of the city news from the past few days, and left blank space where one could write his or her own personalized missive to the recipient.

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In the example below, a Parisian named Albert used one of these hybrids, the Lettre-Journal de Paris, to communicate with his wife, who had gone to Mende, in the south of France, to avoid the siege. As he wrote to her, he found the lettre-journal to be “very intelligent,” since the newspaper “will inform you about the general facts and, as for me, I will only have to tell you about intimate things.”

Along with numbers from the stock exchange, the newspaper conveys positive news regarding Paris’s military situation. In the summary of news from Oct. 23 one reads about the popularity of the public subscription to build cannons, while the Oct. 25 section announces that “employees of the auxiliary engineering corps just found in the Catacombs enough saltpeter to supply Paris with gunpowder for six months.”

The newspaper section concludes with a lighthearted discussion on the city’s positive morale, in the face of the changes brought about by the siege, especially in regards to its eating habits:

We boil, braise, spit roast the horse; and now we are offered the mule, the donkey; eventually all of Noah’s Ark will pass through, and we will digest it. — And what good spirits! No, you would be hard pressed to believe it, and it goes beyond all expectations! Paris has lost none of its spirit or gaiety!
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Albert’s letter, though, sounds a more desperate tone. He is plagued by nightmares and longs to hear from his wife and child, explaining that “this absence of news is what I find the most dreadful.” His responsibilities as the administrator of his military company are what keep him from going “mad with boredom.” Albert ends the letter reassuring his wife that her family in Paris was fine, and sends her “a million loving kisses that you will share with Bébé."

Letters that went up in balloons during the Siege of Paris are difficult to find in archives, for they are popular with philatelists who pay hundreds of dollars for what were, in short, the first examples of air mail. But each of them gives some insight into the everyday trials and tribulations of Parisians during this strange and difficult period. From the banal (such as a detailed inventory of meals eaten in the last week) to the impassioned (such as Albert’s letter), Parisians did their best to maintain some sort of connection with families and friends—just one of many efforts to keep the semblance of a normal life during the havoc of war.

Click on the images below to reach zoomable versions. The author's translations of Albert's letter, and a section of the newspaper, can be found below the images. 

Envelope
An example of the typical size of a letter flown in one of the Siege of Paris balloons (not Albert’s letter).

Images courtesy of United States Air Force Academy Colonel Richard Gimbel Aeronautical Library (Letters: DC/311/A2)

1BalloonLetter
Lettre-Journal de Paris, Oct. 26, 1870, with letter from Albert to his wife.

Images courtesy of United States Air Force Academy Colonel Richard Gimbel Aeronautical Library (Letters: DC/311/A2)

2BalloonLetter
Lettre-Journal de Paris, Oct. 26, 1870, with letter from Albert to his wife.

Images courtesy of United States Air Force Academy Colonel Richard Gimbel Aeronautical Library (Letters: DC/311/A2)

Translation of Albert's letter: 

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Paris, 26 October [1870]

My dearest friend,

To write to you I am taking advantage, as you see, of a newspaper that I find to be very intelligent. It will inform you of the general facts and, as for me, I will only have to tell you about intimate things. I am still doing well, and I hope that you too, mignonne, along with Bébé? You know I am still without news of you even though I have sought to have three or four different channels; this absence of news is what I find the most dreadful. Every night I am awakened by terrible nightmares, each more senseless than the other. I could not be more dismayed by my solitude and every time I return to my empty apartment I get a lump in my throat. I would go mad with boredom if the internal administration of my company did not take up so much of my time and I assure you that the management of 250 men who need to be trained, dressed, paid is no small affair. All day long people come and make complaints that I need to investigate; our dining room is a real office. The sideboard and the table are cluttered with paperwork, which I have great difficulty in organizing. Once or twice a week I gather together my company’s family council, which is my administration council. Sunday morning my commander invited me for lunch. He introduced me to these two young girls who are the two most rabid Republicans that I know. Their [program (the word is slightly illegible, probably refers to political program)] makes that of Rochefort himself pale in comparison. They want the Commune. What should victory ordain? The mass uprising, the demolition of Churches, etc… They are twenty to twenty-two years of age and love to dance, love to go out at night exhibiting a low-cut neckline. They are neither ugly nor pretty. They have the most intense blond hair and their complexion is [mute (unclear)] and colorless. I chorused a bit with them but I positively told them that I would not allow Madame Lascols, shoulders bare, to let herself go in the arms of a waltzer who can, as he pleases, contemplate the treasures that should belong only to the husband. They called me a jealous knave. Was I wrong? I do not know if I told you that I met Madame de Vuilly who is charming and who burns with desire to meet you. I really conquered her esteem and affection. Do you know how? It’s that when I talk to her about you and Bébé, despite myself I always have tears in my eyes. And you wrote to me, you cruel woman, that I did not love you?  If only you knew how much I long to see you, to kiss you, to hold you in my heart! You may have these desires as well but they are not more intense than mine. It is you that I think of while falling asleep, in my dreams it is you that I see and when I wake up your image is before my eyes. Come quickly my darling, I need it. Your whole family is doing well. Your father seems to be happy. A thousand best wishes to my Uncle and my cousins, and to you my darling a million loving kisses that you will share with Bébé, making him/her smile. 

Your Albert

Translation of a section of the newspaper:

TUESDAY, 25 October. Dispatches received from Tours, announcing the fine resistance of Châteaudun, the arrival of Mr. Thiers, and bringing Government documents concerning the organization of troops. — The Defense. Employees of the auxiliary engineering corps just found in the Catacombs enough saltpeter to supply Paris with gunpowder for six months. — The Clubs. Last night, at the Club de la Porte Saint-Martin, the most interesting meeting. Very fine speech by Mr. Bersier against the Commune, unanimously applauded by the audience. Warm acclamation of the Government of National Defense by the entire room.

The state of siege in Paris. — The siege has decidedly betrayed all expectations. Do you remember the words that were said when the blockade began: Paris without promenade! Paris surrounded by 500,000 Prussians who never remove their boots! Paris cluttered with the wounded! Paris forced to eat badly, to cut back on irrigating water, and unsure of where to evacuate its sewers! Paris worried, irritated, nervous! But epidemics will break out and spread around here with an extraordinary intensity! Will it be the plague? Will it be cholera? Will it be some new and unnamed disease? And we waited, trembling with fear. — Well? Paris has never felt better. If it weren’t for small pox, which we already had, and which saw a slight increase, it is wonderful to see how health is blooming under the siege. “Well what do you expect, sir - it’s poverty,” Figaro said. — We go to bed at half past ten, we get up at six, we exercise every morning, and occasionally we spend a night at the ramparts; not much to do, no worries in our heads, and with the large sun high in the sky, it is all very hygienic. — We do not eat, we devour. It is a curious symptom to observe: Parisians never before demonstrated such an appetite, only after being told to ration. Ah! My friends, what makes a besieged city hungry? I think it’s because we think about it. Who of us has had ever worried about his dinner menu? Except on holidays, we ate at random, placing the care of the kitchen in the hands of either the housewife or the maid. Now we no longer walk past a butcher without casting a covetous look. The grocer, in whose establishment glittering tin cans line up side-by-side full of culinary mysteries, seems to us an angel on earth; we look gratefully at his white apron. — We have come to terms with the noblest conquest that man has ever made over nature! We boil, braise, spit roast the horse; and now we are offered the mule, the donkey; eventually all of Noah’s Ark will pass through, and we will digest it. — And what good spirits! No, you would be hard pressed to believe it, and it goes beyond all expectations! Paris has lost none of its spirit or gaiety! (Sarcey, Le Temps.) — Mr. Sarcey, from whom we borrowed what you just read, continues to note that the evenings are very long and very sad, and asks that we get some spectacles and concerts. His wish is now fulfilled. On Sunday the 22nd we had the first Pasdeloup popular concert, and the Théâtre Lyrique will open its doors for performances for the benefit of artists. Conferences where the issues of the day are discussed are also organized everywhere, and Paris goes to them in droves. So we will no more perish by boredom than by hunger.

Patrick Luiz Sullivan De Oliveira is a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University working on a dissertation about the emergence of French airmindedness before the advent of the airplane. Find him on twitter @plsoliveira.