Today is Jules Verne’s birthday, and as I’ve been engaged in putting together a steampunk-themed exhibition and event at the Salem Athenaeum and have hot air balloons on the brain, I thought I’d share some of my favorite images of the balloon craze of the later nineteenth century. Even though hot air balloons were invented in the later eighteenth century, they really picked up steam a century later due in large part to the enormous popularity of Verne’s “Voyages Extraordinaires”, beginning with the publication of Cinq Semaines en Ballon (Five Weeks in a Balloon) in 1863. The Balloon became the most accessible and emblematic of Verne’s fantastic wayfaring machines, and started to show up in all sorts of places.
Frontpieces to early Hetzel editions of Jules Verne’s collected Voyages Extraordinaires.
In addition to Verne’s texts, one of the very best places to look for early balloon images of all types is in the Tissandier collection at the Library of Congress. Gaston and Albert Tissandier were balloon enthusiasts, collectors, and contemporaries of Jules Verne’s, and the Library of Congress purchased their 400+ item collection in the 1930s. Here are the two balloonist brothers in the 1880s: as you can see, shortly after balloons captured the public’s imagination, airships of all kinds began to appear. Anything was possible in the air.
A rather arbitrary sampling of the Tissandier collection is below: Gaston and some journalist companions passed out due to lack of oxygen after their balloon Zénith reached a record height of 28,000 feet over Paris in April of 1875, an advertisement for balloon rides over Paris from the 1880s, and a photograph of several balloons within the newly-built Eiffel Tower at the Paris Exhibition of 1889.
In France, ballooning clearly became an art form, both the activity itself and its graphic depictions, as well as an expression of patriotism. I love the print by Camille Grávis below, with a clockface balloon flying over the Eiffel Tower; it dates from the 1890s and exemplifies the time and place so well. Then we have a tricolor balloon and a fleet of balloons, all bearing the tricolor.
The next step was to remove the basket altogether and attach the balloon, or balloons, directly to a person, or to a horse, or to a person on a horse, or perhaps to a bicycle on its way to the moon. Nothing was impossible; no place was unreachable–in the worlds of Jules Verne.
Throughout the western world, the motif of the hot air balloon infiltrates nearly every manifestation of popular culture in the later nineteenth century: advertising, entertainment, political satire, housewares, clothing, and ultimately moving pictures as well as still ones. I could post about balloon shows, women balloonists, politicians depicted as balloons (not a stretch for late nineteenth-century cartoonists), balloon wallpaper and fabric, balloon-view maps, and all the different types of balloon ephemera. Certainly the actual balloonists–the Montgolfiers in the eighteenth century, the Tissandiers in the nineteenth, and all of their followers–are responsible for this infiltration, but so too was Verne. It’s no accident that the pioneering 1902 Georges Méliès film Voyage dans la lune (of Hugo fame) was inspired by Verne’s earlier story From the Earth to the Moon. At that point in time, Verne was nearing the end of his long and prolific life, and already recognized as a “prophet” of the new century.