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The Balloon in Social and Political Satire

Posted on Mon, February 20, 2017
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What made the balloon such a key graphic element in political and social satire for over one century? Was it the bulbous shape, or the fact that balloons are wayward craft that tend to go where the wind blows, in spite of the aeronaut’s best efforts? Whatever the reason, the great comic artists of the 18th and 19th century turned to the balloon time and time again in order to poke fun at people and events. The meaning of many of the political satires, the inside joke, is often lost on us today. If any of our friends out there can enlighten us as to the story behind one of these mysteries, we welcome the assistance! 

  • Balloon carries a man off into the air.

    This etching offers political commentary on the coalition government of 1783 uniting Prime Minister Lord North and his political opponent, Charles James Fox. In this etching Lord North and Fox have been hanged and are floating away.

    The Coalition Balloon 1784, Artist unknown, Hand-colored etching, English, 1784

  • Balloon comic.

    Generating the hydrogen to fill a balloon by mixing dilute sulfuric and iron fillings was a time consuming process, taking many hours, and sometimes days. This comic print offers a sure fire way to avoid disappointing spectators.

    Moyen infaillible d'enlever les Ballons, Etching, French, 18th century

  • Balloon being pulled by a horse.

    This print offers a solution to the problem of navigating a balloon.

    Moyen infaillible de diriger les Ballons, Etching, French, 18th century

  • Etching with strange floating balloon.

    Poisson Aerostatique enlevé a Plazentia Ville d'Espagne situé au milieu des Montagnes, et dirigé par Dom Joseph Patinho jusqu'a la Ville de Coria au bort de la Riviere d'Arragon, éloigné de 12 lieues de Plazentia le 10 mars 1784.

    This print is a puzzle. The caption notes that the image is of an event that occurred on March 10, 1784. In fact, a legend of doubtful veracity has it that Joseph Patinho and two companions took to the air aboard this fish-shaped balloon from Plasencia, Spain in 1609. Captivated by the wave of balloon enthusiasm washing across France in 1784, the artist/engraver apparently reworked an old print and updated the event.

    Etching, French, 1784

  • Queen and King flying on creatures.

    A caricature featuring George III and the Queen Charlotte watching soldiers riding flying cannons with wings as soldiers on horseback look on in stunned amazement.

    Etching, English, 1792

  • Balloons over the sea.

    A social commentary on the rush to reach the California gold fields, and the efforts of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt and others to profit from the situation.

    The Great Pictorial Romance of the Age or Steam Ship Commodores & United States Mail Contractors

    Lithograph, American, 1849

  • People in a large balloon vessel.

    The ballooning fad gave this illustrator artistic license to suggest the ultimate balloon voyage—a trip to the Moon. 

    Chromolithograph, English, 19th century

  • City scene with balloons in background.

    Scene of people talking on London streets with balloons and flying machines overhead. Signs on buildings show that the scene is set in the future.

    Lithograph, English, 19th century

  • Balloon shaped like a human head.

    Caricature commenting on current events. The Library of Congress believes that the face on the balloon may be that of Italian statesman Francesco Crispi. "La belle Bourbonnaise" was the title of an 1875 comic opera.

    French, lithograph, 1874

  • A woman shaped like a balloon floats in the sky.

    It is not clear what event this satiric print, dated April 29, 1784, is referring to. Thirteen months later, on June 28, 1785, Vincenzo Lunardi attempted to take off from London with George Biggin and actress Letitia Sage, reputed to weigh over 200 pounds. When they could not get off the ground, Lunardi, the only balloonist in the group, gave Biggin some quick flying instructions and stepped out of the basket so that the two could ascend alone. Fortunately, they landed safely.

    Etching, April 29, 1784

  • Woman and man in a balloon.

    This print may be a commentary on the Peace of Amiens, which brought a temporary halt to the war between France and Great Britain.

    Etching, English, 1802

  • Image with text below.

    A comic comment on the attempt of Allen Keegan to ascend from Lord Foley's Garden, Portland Place, London, September 29, 1784 in a balloon constructed by Dr. John Sheldon. When the balloon failed to lift, it was attacked and burned by the disappointed crowd. Other prints in a similar style related to this event are credited to Paul Sandby.

    Etching, English, 1784

  • A man and woman talk about balloons.

    A commentary on the craze for balloons.

    Les Merveilleux Physiciens, Etching, French, 1785 (?)

  • Two men in a basket.

    A political cartoon depicting two men aloft in a parachute. One of the men is identified as John Bull. Parts of the parachute are labeled 'Sinking Fund,' 'Hoop of National Security,' 'Compound Interest,' and 'Million pr. Annum at Interest.' Part of the clouds, labeled 'National Debt' is streaking down and grabbing the parachute. The British Isles are below with the English Flag and labeled 'Land of Emancipation.'

    Etching, English, 1892

  • Men surround a balloon basket.

    This print appears to be a satirical comment on the Upper Canada rebellion of 1837, protesting control of Upper Canada by an oligarchy. Charles Green, who had announced his desire to balloon across the Atlantic, is carrying an ambassador to the rebels in his basket.

    Lithograph, English, 1838

  • Two women in a balloon with man dangling below basket.

    Summer Amusement. An Elevated Subject. Far from the busy world remove'd, how peaceful is their "lot"!!

    Etching, English, 1830

  • Black and white etching.

    Fantaisies. Prodige de la Chimie.

    There has to be a story behind this print. We see a man with a lion’s head hawking Pommade de Lion, while a very long line of people wait to get the product. In the foreground we see bald people rubbing it on their heads, and people with a very exaggerated hair who have already used it. A tethered balloon is labeled "no. 537. Envoi de Pommade aux Habitants de la Lune."

    Etching, French, 19th century

  • Man with umbrella walks below a man who appears to be attached to string.

    Honoré-Victorin Daumier was one of the great French caricaturists of the 19th century. While the exact meaning of this drawing is unclear, Thevelin was a sportsman and acrobat. This image was published in  Le Charivari, October 8, 1852

    Une ascension en automme: Mr. Thévelin se livrant sur son trapéze á un exercice aquatico-aérien.
    Lithograph, French, 1852

  • Black and white lithograph.

    Louis Phillipe (1773-1850) was King of France and head of the conservative Orleanist party form 1830 to 1848, when he was deposed. As in this print, the balloon was a favorite comic device to indicate the sudden departure of a leader.

    Les Rois S'en Vont...Bon Voyage!
    Lithograph, French, 19th century

  • Men use a balloon to evade the police.

    How To Get Over The Prohibition Law.

    Lithograph, American, 19th century

  • A woman's skirt is used as a balloon.

    “La Belle Alphonsine” is something of a puzzle. Alphonsine Fournaise, one of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's favorite models who is portrayed in Luncheon of the Boating Party, is often referred to as La Belle Alphonsine. Is this comic drawing a reference to her, or something and someone else entirely?

    Le Nouveau Ballon Dirigeable. La Belle Alphonsine. 14 Septembre 1884.
    Newspaper, French, September 14, 1884