Using Science to Solve an Object Mystery

Posted on Wed, June 6, 2018

The invention of the balloon in the late-18th century sparked a wave of enthusiasm that swept across Europe. Huge crowds, estimated at half the population of Paris, lined the streets, windows, and rooftops of the French capital to witness human beings rising into the air for the first time. Artisans, eager to take advantage of the balloon craze, offered consumers a wide variety of products commemorating the birth of flight. The National Air and Space Museum displays a wonderful collection of this material at our Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, from works of art and prints to ladies fans, snuff and patch boxes, needle cases, tableware, and furnishings decorated with balloon motifs.

Among the treasures on view are four antique side chairs, their backs decorated with balloon motifs and fabric seats embroidered with scenes of triumph and tragedy experienced by the first aeronauts. When the event depicted on the seat is a moment of triumph, such as the first flight of human beings in a hydrogen-filled balloon, the furniture maker carved instruments of exploration on the back: a globe, a telescope, and a map case. 

Wooden chair with needlepoint embroidered upholstery of balloon

Wooden chair with needlepoint embroidered upholstery and splat carved in the form of Zambeccari balloon.  Scene depicts the first ascent of a manned hydrogen balloon. Gift of William A.M. Burden. Credit: National Air and Space Museum, A19750732000.

On the chair illustrating the first fatal balloon accident, however, the back features a sickle, an hour glass, and a memorial ribbon. 

Wooden chair with needlepoint embroidered upholstery of balloon

Wooden chair with embroidered fabric upholstery. Gift of William A.M. Burden. Credit: National Air and Space Museum, A19750735000.

The four chairs, and a great many other items, came to our collection in 1971 as a donation from W.A.M Burden, a great friend of the Smithsonian and the Museum. 

The appraisal of the items. Burden was donating to the Museum identified the items in question as: “French 18th century carved beechwood and upholstered Louis XVI side chairs….” Books and catalogues in the world’s museums have uniformly described the Museum’s chairs as dating to the late-18th or early 19th centuries.

In 1971, however, as the chairs and other pieces of balloon furniture were being prepared for an exhibition in the Smithsonian’s Art and Industries Building, experienced appraiser Frank Klapthor took a look at them. Klapthor, who was considered an authority on historic furnishings and had consulted with the White House, Mount Vernon, and other historic sites, remarked that, “because of general construction,” he doubted the chairs’ 18th century origins. This presented a puzzle. Balloon-themed furnishings remained popular for a few years immediately following the first appearance of balloons in 1783, but was short-lived. Why would anyone have commissioned such expensive items long after the balloon craze had passed?

As curator of the Museum’s collection of objects and art documenting the early history of ballooning, I had long been curious about the story of our four balloon chairs and realized that there was a possible explanation for a later creation date. Burden had acquired them in the mid-1930s from the estate of Paul Tissandier, one of Wilbur Wright’s earliest French flying students. His father, Gaston Tissandier (1843-1899) was a 19th century French scientist, daring aeronaut, airship pioneer, and the leading historian and bibliographer of ballooning.

Gaston and Albert Tissandier

Gaston Tissandier pushed the limits of altitude in a balloon in 1875. 

The elder Tissandier had decorated the walls of his Paris apartment, floor to ceiling, with paintings and prints illustrating the early history of ballooning. He furnished the space with 18th century couches, chairs, desks, tables, and other items decorated with balloon motifs. The tableware featured historic balloons. Balloon clocks stood on the mantle. Might not such an avid collector who furnished his apartment with real 18th century balloon furniture, art, and prints, have commissioned a set of balloon-themed dining room chairs from a fine furniture maker in the 1880s to match the rest of his décor?

An illustration of Gaston Tissandier apartment, from McClure’s Magazine

An illustration of Gaston Tissandier apartment, from McClure’s Magazine, December 1894. (Note the Museum chair on the right.) Credit: McClure’s Magazine via HathiTrust.

Answering this question began with a chance meeting with Lorraine Burns, a graduate student in George Washington University’s Corcoran School-Master’s program in Decorative Arts & Design, in partnership with the Smithsonian Associates. . When she explained her interest in the links between aircraft and furniture design, I mentioned the puzzle of the chairs. She commented that her professor, Oscar Fitzgerald, was an authority on 18th century furniture. With the enthusiastic support of Malcolm Collum, the Museum’s Engen Conservation Chair and chief conservator, I asked that the chairs be moved to our Emil Bueller Conservation Lab, where Professor Fitzgerald could examine them. We would not wait for that visit to begin our examination of the chairs, however. Museum conservator David Blanchfield, a graduate of Winterthur and a veteran of the Williamsburg conservation department, conducted his own evaluation. Here’s what he found:

David Blanchfield

At the request of Dr. Crouch, I, along with other members of the conservation department, performed a visual and x-radiographic examination of the two chairs. Visually, we determined that the primary construction and  show wood of the chairs is walnut.

X-rays revealed that the back on both chairs were constructed using loose dowel pins set into holes drilled using an auger bit (See X-rays below). The exception to this is the bottom splat rail, which is attached to the stiles using what appear to be loose-fitting floating tenons. This construction is original to the chair as there is no evidence or remnant of any other type of joinery.

Had these chairs been constructed in the 18th century, the construction would almost certainly have consisted of tight-fitting, possibly pinned, mortise and tenon joints. Dowel construction came into wide use only in the second quarter of the 19th century as machinery to mass-produce dowel pins was invented and made widely available. This type of construction was standard well into the 20th century. The use of floating tenons on the bottom splat rail is determined by the very steep downward angle of the rail, which, because of the small amount of backing wood, precludes the use of a dowel pin in the upper section. Instead, the floating tenons were inserted to provide support along the entire width of the rail.

These results fully support Dr. Crouch’s hypothesis that these chairs are of late 19th century French origin.

X-radiograph detail of top rail and stile joint of balloon chair

X-radiograph detail of top rail and stile joint showing original dowel construction (red arrows) and modern wire repair nails (blue arrows). Credit: National Air and Space Museum

X-radiograph of lower splat showing dowel construction and modern wire repair nails

X-radiograph of lower splat showing dowel construction (red arrow) and modern wire repair nails. Note also what appear to be floating tenons (blue arrows) at either end of the bottom splat rail. Credit: National Air and Space Museum 

When Professor Fitzgerald visited to study the chairs, he fully agreed with David. “Furniture in the neoclassical style has a light, almost delicate quality to it,” he remarked. Fitzgerald said:

“Victorian aesthetic designers often used the same neoclassical motifs but attempted to improve on them by making the carving more robust and adding details that did not always relate nicely. It seems to me that is what is going on with the carving on the balloon chairs. Instead of being relatively flat and delicate, the chairs are quite robust.   Design differences between 18th  century pieces and revivals are subtle and subject to conflicting interpretations. However, construction differences cannot be challenged. The X-rays that reveal dowels rather than traditional mortise and tenon construction are the smoking gun. That method of construction does not appear until well into the 19th  century. “

So, between David Blanchfield’s science and Oscar Fitzgerald’s eye, the old problem was solved. The appraisers of the 1970s stand corrected. The chairs were the work of late-19th century French craftsmen, commissioned by Gaston Tissandier. The chairs may not be as old as we once thought, but their story is no less interesting.

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