Letters Carried by Balloon

CMC S99-6055; PCD 99-073-055

National Postal Museum collection. CMC 1991.35.1-3

These three letters are testimony to the imagination and daring of the residents of the city of Paris during its siege of 1871. They witnessed one of the first attempts ever to institute airmail. The French postal service included plans for a fleet of balloons and a carrier pigeon service. At that period, the round balloons were impossible to steer, and they could only be used to get mail out of Paris. Bringing mail in was the job of homing pigeons that were carried on board the balloons. Sixty-five balloons were to take out of Paris 29 passengers and almost 11 tons of mail. As for the carrier pigeons, despite the cold weather and pot-shots from enemy soldiers, they managed to bring back to the capital almost 100,000 messages.

These examples of that early airmail were letters from Cosme de Satgé to his mother, Henrietta Rowley; they supply fascinating information about the life led by Parisians of the time. They also record the name of the balloons in which they were carried.

The first letter was apparently transported by the balloon Gironde, which departed on November 8, at 8.20 a.m., from the Gare d'Orléans. The departure postmark indicates the third collection on November 6, 1870.

The second letter found passage on the balloon Armand-Barbès, which left at 11.10 a.m. on October 7 from the Place Montmartre; on board were Minister of the Interior Gambetta and his secretary Spuller.

The third letter is postmarked as leaving September 25, 1870, but we cannot identify with certainty which balloon carried it. Many letters were held up in the postal system. In order to deal with the flood of mail, heavy-duty balloons such as the Jean-Bart No. 1, the Jules Favre No. 1, and the Victor-Hugo hauled out roughly 300 to 450 kilograms of mail between October 12th and 18th, 1870. It may well be, therefore, that this third letter was carried by one of those balloons.