The world of sport ballooning lost one of its pioneers with the death of Don Piccard on September 14, 2020. He was involved in the renaissance of hot air ballooning and a true pioneer of the sport. All of us who wonder at the sight of a hot air balloon in the sky, are in his debt.
The National Air and Space Museum Archives hold biographical information on many people related to aviation, but it is still surprising to find articles about one Antonie Strassmann, a famous German actress of the 1920s. The few clippings indicate a fascinating story – a woman pilot who had performed on stage and in silent movies, who flew in balloons, held a world record in cycling for women, and loved to box. But was Antonie really one of these aviatrixes of the 1920s who were often accused of donning a flight suit and goggles for the sake of publicity only?
The National Air and Space Museum boasts an extraordinary collection of record setting balloon baskets and gondolas. There is Explorer II, which carried U.S. Army Air Corps Captains Albert W. Stevens and Orvil Anderson to a record altitude of (22,066 meters) 72,395 feet on November 11, 1935. In August 1978, Maxie Anderson, Ben Abruzzo, and Larry Newman made the first balloon crossing of the Atlantic in Double Eagle II.
Aerial weddings may now be considered quite commonplace. Just a quick online search turns up a number of places that provide skydiving services. But in the nineteenth century, the idea of flying at all was still exciting. Balloon weddings? Those were spectacles! Mary West Jenkins and Dr. John F. Boyton intended to be married on November 8, 1865, in Thaddeus Lowe’s balloon, high over New York City.
For many people, sitting down and reading a thick history book is not the most exciting proposal. I have had more than one relative question my choice to study history, and inform me that it was their least enjoyable class in school. Luckily for them, history can be found in more places than traditional scholarly textbooks. History can be found in television, movies, and even comic books. Although it may be more enjoyable to experience history in this way, these sources may not always be the most accurate representations.
Although the collection of the National Air and Space Museum contains some of the best air- and spacecraft, it also has one of the best collections of artifacts from the often forgotten days of ballooning. Before humans were able to fly into the heavens on wings or rockets, they first rose off the ground in balloons, often tethered to prevent complete flight.
Uncle Sam and two lovely ladies cruise serenely above the clouds — avoiding all those holiday traffic jams — in this patriotic postcard by the great postcard artist Ellen Hattie Clapsaddle (1865-1934), who had a real talent for holiday-themed airships.
The nation is in the process of commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and those of us at the Smithsonian are very much involved, searching our collections for items that will help our visitors better understand the conflict that divided 19th century America. As might be expected, the National Museum of American History, the National Portrait Gallery, and the National Museum of American Art preserve and display a wealth of objects, portraits, and images that help to bring the Civil War era to life. Who would have guessed, however, that the National Air and Space Museum would hold a single object used by more high ranking Union Army officers than any other surviving artifact in the entire Smithsonian collection!
In the early years of the 20th century, one of the ways that enthusiasm for all things aeronautical found expression were in colorful chromolithographic postcards, like this Easter postcard featuring an intrepid, though slightly nervous-looking, rabbit who takes to the sky onboard a festive aerial egg balloon. The card was mailed to one Elinora in Frederick, Maryland by her cousin Louisa in April, 1911. Yes, a lighter-than-air bunny may be a little unlikely, but surely no more than a turkey piloting a biplane. Allan Janus is a museum specialist in the Archives Division of the National Air and Space Museum.
How do the National Air and Space Museum and the Civil War intersect? Come find out as we tell the story of the Union Balloon Corps founded in June 1861 by President Abraham Lincoln. 150 years ago next month Thaddeus Lowe demonstrated ballooning to President Lincoln on a spot just north from where the Museum now stands on the National Mall.