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Le Ballon-Poste, No. 1, and a letter from Eugene Winthrop to Charles Francis Winthrop, 31 October 1870

Le Ballon-Poste, No. 1, and a letter from Eugene Winthrop to Charles Francis Winthrop, 31 October 1870 Periodical and manuscript letter


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    Air Mail in 1870: Le Ballon-Poste

    In a letter written from besieged Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, Eugene Winthrop informs his brother, Charles Francis Winthrop, of "the latest method of giving news to those outside." The cover sheet for the letter, also dated 31 October 1870, was the first issue of a miniature newspaper, Le Ballon-Poste, published in Paris to inform those outside what was taking place within the city with space for a brief personal message.

    Balloons and Pigeons

    During the Franco-Prussian War, Paris was besieged by German armies from 19 September 1870-28 January 1871. Cut off from the outside world, French officials almost immediately turned to hot air balloons as a means to send dispatches, personal mail, and occasional passengers—most notably Leon Gambetta, the minister of defense in the new French national government—across (above) enemy lines. The daredevil flights of the "aeronauts" captured the public imagination. Hot air balloons were all-but impossible to steer so balloons came down all across northern France, into the hands of the German forces in France—and in Germany, and as far away as Norway. In at least two instances, balloons disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean. Nevertheless, although the balloonists were not able to fly back to Paris, they supplied the outside world with the means to send news and mail back to the city. The balloons carried out hundreds of homing pigeons—a small number of which managed to return to their lofts in Paris with microfilmed messages attached to their feathers, sometimes making the round trip more than once. In all, almost sixty successful flights of the "balloon post" carried more than two million pieces of mail out of Paris and about the same number of pigeon flights brought (at least) tens of thousands of messages back.

    As more hot air balloons were manufactured and pressed into service, airmail became more elaborately organized. Hippolyte de Villemassant, the publisher of Le Figaro, began Le Ballon-Poste, a miniature, two-page newspaper printed on thin paper that was "airmailed" to the outside world. Eugene Winthrop, an American banker residing in Paris, took advantage of the blank cover sheet of the first issue of the Ballon-Poste, dated 31 October 1870, to send a brief letter to his brother. If the letter went out in the next recorded balloon flight, it was on board "Le Fulton." Many balloons were named for statesmen, military leaders, scientists, and inventors—and the "Fulton," named for Robert Fulton, an American inventor who had lived in France, carried at least one newspaper/letter bound for the United States. After six hours in the air, the balloon landed southeast of Paris beyond the German lines. From there, the letter continued on a relatively rapid journey arriving at the post office in New York City on 19 November.

    The Rappel Sounds

    By 31 October 1870, the day that Eugene Winthrop wrote to his brother, Paris had been under siege for more than a month. The day turned out to be eventful as Winthrop reported in his brief letter: news had arrived in the city of the surrender on 27 October of the main French field army besieged at Metz, near the German border. A gallant but costly sortie of the Paris garrison the day before had failed and, as Winthrop notes in his letter, the rappel—the sounding of the alarm with a drum roll brought a great throng to the seat of government, the Hotel de Ville. Threats, as Winthrop reported, now came from both without and within Paris. He closed his letter with a darkly humorous reference to eating "horse"—after a month of siege, food shortages began to appear in the city and all creatures—dogs and cats, mice and rats, and even zoo animals soon would become part of the food supply.

    Eugene Winthrop

    Eugene Winthrop, a seventh-generation descendant of John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was born in New York City in 1844. He was one of eight children of Thomas Charles and Georgiana Maria Kane Winthrop. Charles Francis Winthrop, the recipient of the letter, was Eugene's eldest brother. Charles was a merchant in New York City while Eugene was a banker with the firm of Drexel, Harjes and Company of Paris, located in 1870 at 3 Rue Scribe—"our rooms at 'No 3'" as Eugene describes them in his letter.

    Although Charles (b. 1827) was much older, the death of their brother Frederick, a Civil War hero who was killed only days before the Confederate surrender, and then the more recent death of another brother, Grenville, who went to France in an attempt to recover his health but died there in 1869, may have brought Charles and Eugene closer together, at least through correspondence. Eugene never married. He died of pneumonia in New York City in 1893, just after making a return trip to the United States. Town Topics, a New York newspaper devoted to society news and gossip, reported that Winthrop's death would "leave a wide gap in the social circles of London, Paris, and New York."

    Further Reading

    The Balloon Post. Boston: 11-17 April 1871.

    The airlift from Paris captured the imagination of people everywhere, especially those concerned with the plight of war-ravaged France. A "fair for the relief of suffering in France" was held in Boston in April 1871. The newspaper published at the fair was named for Le Ballon-Poste.

    Holmes, Richard. Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air. New York: Pantheon Books, 2013.

    Horne, Alistair. The Fall of Paris: the Siege and the Commune 1870-71. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1965 (rev. ed. 2007).

    McCullough, David. The Greater Journey. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.

    Rolt, L. T. C. The Aeronauts: a Dramatic Story of the Great Age of Ballooning. New York: Walker and Company, 1966.

    Tissandier Collection. Library of Congress.

    The online version of the Tissandier Collection at the Library of Congress includes two illustrated broadsides that give variant details of 64 (or 69) balloon flights from Paris during the siege:

    Tissandier, Albert. Les Ballons du Siège de Paris: Septembre 1870 Février 1871. Paris: Lemercier, [1870-1880].

    ---. Les Ballons Sortis pendant le Siege de Paris, 1870-1871. Paris: Grandjean et Gascard, Lith., [1870-1880].

    Town Topics: The Journal of Society. Vol. 29, No. 3. New York, Thursday, Feb. 2, 1893, p. 6.

    Wawro, Geoffrey. The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870-1871. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    Winthrop Family Papers II, 1578-1977. Massachusetts Historical Society.

    Additions to the Massachusetts Historical Society's very large collection of Winthrop family papers include more than twenty of Eugene Winthrop's letters from Paris, 1868-1874.