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AS air balloons are the hobby-horses of the day, give me leave, in imitation of Tristan Shandy, to say a word or two upon these same hobby-horses,

It appears now very probable that these new invented machines will best all the flies that ever flew upon our roads, and consequently post-horses will become a drug, stage-coaches will admit only turkies and chines as inside passengers…”

The above appeared in a letter from ‘a real Patriot’ in The Town and Country Magazine, or, Universal Repository of Knowledge, Instruction and Entertainment (Dec 1783) pp713-714 (Proquest, Doc ID:  6451266).

Ballooning was a perfect way for those in the Eighteenth Century to combine scientific investigation and the importance of the sublme with entertainment.

It attracted the attention of the leading poets of the day:

To a balloon, laden with Knowledge

Bright ball of flame that thro the gloom of even
Silently takest thine etherial way
And with surpassing glory dimmst each ray
Twinkling amid the dark blue Depths of Heaven
Unlike the Fire thou bearest, soon shall thou
Fade like a meteor in surrounding gloom
Whilst that unquencheable is doomed to glow
A watch light by the patriots lonely tomb
A ray of courage to the opprest & poor,
A spark tho’ gleaming on the hovel’s hearth
Which thro the tyrants gilded domes shall roar
A beacon in the darkness of the Earth
A Sun which oer the renovated scene
Shall dart like Truth where Falshood yet has been.

(Percy Bysshe Shelley)

Timothy Morton in Chapter 10 of the Cambridge Companion to Shelley (DOI:  http/dx/doi.org/10.1017/CCOL0521826047) says that “Ballooning was associated with philosophical speculation in general and (French) revolutionary philosophy in particular.  The first aeronautic writing offered a radially displaced view of the earth, as if see by extraterrestrial beings.  Rather than embodying a sense of ‘here’, of home and hearth, Shelley’s imagery of the star or meteor presents nature (and culture) as decentred, unfamiliar, elsewhere.”

March of Intellect

March of Intellect

(Light Speed Magazine)

Images of balloons were not restricted to pictures and prints.  It could be found on furniture, fans, snuff boxes, crockery and fabric suggesting that all levels of society were particularly caught up in the craze.

Balloon fabric

Image taken from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

At the event held at the Hilton Hotel in York, on Friday 19 September 2014, Dawn Hoskin an Assistant Curator, Europe 1600-1800 at the Victoria and Albert Museum presented a paper on the significance of ballooning during the Long Eighteenth Century and how this was reflected in all manner of memorabilia and satire.

Balloon 1814

Image taken from: James Sadler: The Oxford balloon man history forgot

Dawn wove the discussion around the handkerchief commemorating the first ascent of a hydrogen-filled hot air balloon at the Tuileries, block-printed cotton, Alsace (France), ca.1783 (V&A 1872-1899)

1783 balloon handkerchief

Image taken from Dawn Hoskin’s V&A blog pages

Dawn suggested that perhaps the original owner of the handkerchief was French (due to the subject matter) and that it was kept in good condition as a patriotic gesture.  Certainly given the poor quality of both the cotton fabric and the dyes used this does seem a likely conclusion.  The manufacture of the piece (which has not been finished) also suggests that the target market was not the upper echelons of society.

But Dawn did not restrict her talk to the images of balloons but used this as a springboard to a discussion of the changing importance of the handkerchief itself and suggested that with the increase in another ‘typical’ Eighteenth Century past-time, taking snuff, so the handkerchief changed from being a delicate fashion item to a robust necessary (Smollett’s “flag of abomination”) to be kept hidden away in the user’s pocket (just as purportedly the up-tilted chin which has become synonymous with haughty ‘toffs’ was a way of ensuring that the white linen of neckcloth and shirt did not become besmirched with the brown stains that were the by-product of the habit).  Whilst the logic of this is self-evident it seems almost at odds with the image of the Eighteenth Century aristocrat with his long lace sleeves, high heels, fancy wig and delicate hanky used to dab gently at his nose after enjoying his pinch of snuff … fiction has a lot to answer for!

Pimpernel Snuff

Anthony Andrews as the Scarlet Pimpernel