In 1871, beleaguered Parisians used balloons to carry mail out of their city. A headline in the New York Times on February 4, 1871 referred to the "Latest by Balloon Mail," from the city, "from our special correspondent, and dated January 12, 1871." In the first part of the 20th century, German Zeppelins carried mail across continents and oceans. In the U.S., however, balloon mail never advanced out of the fad phase.
The National Postal Museum has a number of items in its collections that were carried by balloons and airships including the Zeppelins. Click on an item below to view and learn more about it.
Envelope carried out of Paris during the 1870 siege in the balloon "Colonel Charras." The balloon left Paris on October 29 at noon, descended at 5:00 p.m. that afternoon 308 kilometers away at Montigny-le-Roi, Haute-Marne. The balloon, piloted by Mr. Gilles, carried 450 kilograms of mail and was made in perfect conditions, but the descent was into occupied territory. Nevertheless the balloon along with the mail and pigeons it was carrying were successfully hidden from the Germans. The mail was smuggled to Chaumont and turned over to the French Post Office on October 30, 1870.
Envelope carried out of Paris during the siege in the balloon "La Ville de Chateaudum," which left Paris the morning of November 6, 1870 and descended that afternoon near Chatres. The balloon carried 455 kilograms of mail and was at first flying low enough to take German fire, after which operator Bosc dumped ballast and ascended out of firing range. People were leaving the famous church at Chatres as the balloon descended. They his the balloon and mail in a farm wagon and forwarded them to Vovres, then Toures.
Envelope carried out of Paris during the 1870 siege in the balloon "L'Armee de Bretagne," on December 7. It descended 355 kilometers outside of Paris at Bois-Morne, Vienne. The flight was made in heavy snow and as the balloon came down, it hit a tree, and its pilot, Mr. Surel de Montchamps, was thrown out of the basket and killed.
Envelope carried out of Paris during the 1870 siege in the balloon "Le Celeste" which left Paris on September 30. It landed about 81 kilometers away near Dreux. Along with mail, the balloon carried thousands of proclamations from the French government that were dropped to populations along the way.
Envelope carried out of Paris during the 1870 siege in the balloon "Le Daguerre," which carried this letter and other mail out of the city on November 12. The balloon, carrying 270 kilograms of mail, landed a short distance away, just south of Lagny, in occupied territory. The mail was confiscated and held by the Germans until the end of the war. At that time, this and other pieces made their way into private hands as souvenirs.
Envelope carried out of Paris during the 1870 siege in the balloon "Le Ferdinand Flacon." The balloon carrying this letter among the 150 kilograms of mail left Paris on November 4 and landed at Nantes.
Envelope carried out of Paris during the 1870 siege in the balloon "Le Fulton" on November 2. In total, 245 kilograms of mail was carried on the flight, which ended in tragedy in a sudden descent in bad weather. The pilot, thrown from the basket, was killed. The mail was recovered and forwarded.
Envelope carried out of Paris during the 1870 siege in the balloon "Le Garibaldi," leaving Paris at 11:30 am on October 22. It landed a two hours later only 40 kilometers away in occupied territory. Fortunately for the pilot, passenger, they escaped into French territory with their cargo.
Envelope carried out of Paris during the 1870 siege in the balloon "Le General Renault." The pilot of this balloon, Mr. Joignerey, ran into trouble and had to descend only five kilometers away, in German-occupied territory. Nevertheless, the pilot and his assistant managed to smuggle themselves and the mail into French lines.
Envelope carried out of Paris during the 1870 siege in the balloon "Le General Ulrich," leaving Paris at 8 am on November 18 and landing 36 kilometers away. A wind change blew the balloon off course and almost back into Paris. Before the Germans could reach the downed craft, French civilians managed to smuggle it, the pilot and passengers, and mail into unoccupied France.
Envelope carried out of Paris during the 1870 siege in the balloon "Le Godefroy Cavaignac." This letter was among the 200 kilograms of mail carried on that day by pilot Mr. Godard, Sr. They landed 256 kilometers from Paris, which should have been far enough away from Paris. Unfortunately for the pilot and passengers, there were German troops in the area. The mail was hidden in a wagon and forwarded to a post office.
Envelope carried out of Paris during the 1870 siege in the balloon "Le Jules Favre No. 1" on October 16. The balloon landed near Foid-Chapelle, Belgium.
Envelope carried out of Paris during the 1870 siege in the balloon "La Fayette," on October 19, leaving at 9 am and landing 356 kilometers away, near Mezieres, at 11:30 am. On its descent, the balloon was caught in a tree. The pilot and passengers were able to climb down without injury. The mail was taken to the Renwez post office for processing.
Envelope carried out of Paris during the 1870 siege in the first balloon sent out during the siege. The balloon was named "Le Neptune," which flew out of Paris on September 22. It was flown by Jules Duruof and landed that day at Cracouville, 104 kilometers away. It carried 125 kilograms of mail, including this letter.