A Collector's Passion for Early Ballooning

Posted on Wed, November 23, 2016

As SpongeBob and Turkey shaped-balloons float their way down Central Park West for the traditional Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade this morning, we’re reminded of someone from the past who had a great interest in ballooning. Evelyn Way Kendall was a prolific collector of balloon-themed objects, and had perhaps the largest collection of such items in the nation. But what inspired her to amass such a collection?

Evelyn Way (1893-1979) attended Albert and Pickering Colleges in Ontario and graduated from Montreal’s Royal Victoria Training School for Nurses in 1916. She married Henry Plimpton Kendall (1878-1959), a Massachusetts industrialist and entrepreneur, in 1926. The pair had had three children, including Henry Way Kendall (1926-1999), a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and environmentalist. A nurse and mother, Mrs. Kendall also established a reputation as a dedicated collector with broad interests.  She and her husband built a collection of early South Carolina maps and prints which they donated to the University of South Carolina. She assembled significant collections of dolls, antique clothing, and folk art. She worked with her husband to develop a world-class collection of whaling equipment and memorabilia, now displayed in the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Portrait of Evelyn Way Kendall

Portraite of Evelyn Way Kendall. 

It is not clear why Mrs. Kendall began her collection of art, prints, books, archival material, and objects relating to the history of ballooning. Late in 1920, her father William Beal Way, a regional supervisor with the Canadian National Railroads, was involved in the rescue of three U.S. Navy balloonists who had been carried from their Long Island base to the Hudson’s Bay wilderness. In January 1921, he wrote a 14-page account of the balloon voyage, its aftermath, and his involvement for his family. His daughter Evelyn was especially fascinated.

Newspaper page with multiple images and text detailing the balloon rescue.

Page of the New York Times that details the rescue of three U.S. Navy balloonists who had been carried from their Long Island base.

Evelyn Way spent the summer and fall of 1925 in Europe. She visited London, laid a wreath on her cousin John’s grave in the British cemetery at Vis-En-Artois, and lived in Paris from July through October. Did she spot a balloon print or a balloon-themed match case or snuff box in the window of a Paris antique shop and, remembering her father’s encounter with the three lost balloonists just four years earlier, succumb to temptation?

The next few years would be busy ones for her, dominated by marriage and the birth of her children. Busy or not, she found time to correspond with Maggs Brothers and other British and French dealers, building a collection of antique aeronautical prints, works of art, and objects documenting the early history of flight. As early as 1931 she was receiving queries from scholars expressing interest in her “wonderful collection of balloon prints.” 

As a collector of aeronautica, Evelyn Way Kendall was in the best of company. The role of aviation in the War and its potential to shape the future had sparked interest in the collection of prints, objects, and furnishings inspired by the invention of the balloon and the birth of flight in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A number of other Americans were building similar collections during the years between the wars, including Bella Landauer, who specialized in aeronautical sheet music. William A.M. Burden, a Vanderbilt relative who made his own fortune in aviation securities, acquired over 50 examples of balloon-themed objects and furnishings, while Harry Frank Guggenheim, the entrepreneur and philanthropist whose life was linked to the development of aeronautics, amassed a collection of 174 balloon prints.

Evelyn Way Kendall put them all in the shade, building a world-class collection that included 78 original works of art, almost 450 prints, 117 balloon-themed objects, and a library of over 330 rare aeronautical books and manuscripts. One of her children recalled that she stopped collecting in the 1950s “because there was nothing left to buy.” Over a period of three decades, she had quietly gathered perhaps the largest private collection of rare aeronautica in the nation.  In 2014, through the generosity of her family, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum accepted the donation of the Evelyn Way Kendall Ballooning and Early Aviation Collection. The story of the lost balloon and the journalistic frenzy that it inspired had faded from memory, but the collection those events inspired remains to inspire generations to come.


The Evelyn Way Kendall Ballooning and Early Aviation Collection is a gift to the Museum through the generosity of the Norfolk Charitable Trust.