Air mail was born 150 years ago

Ferdinando Giudici


At the beginning of 1870, Prussia, headed by King William I, proposed Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern’s candidacy to the throne of Spain. France, with the Emperor Louis Napoleon III is opposed, fearing an encirclement by the Germanic Empire.
On July 2nd, 1870, the French Ambassador Count Vincent de Benedetti met King William I in Ems, a spa in Pomerania. Arrogant France demands written confirmation of Hohenzollern’s candidacy withdrawal; the Prussian emperor flatly refused and, on the same day, the Prussian chancellor Von Bismarck delivered a dispatch to the press, after having slightly modified it.
The dispatch deals with the meeting of Ems which makes the French furious; the French press plays to the bitter end with provocation: the 33 French newspapers, rather than calm things down, take shoots at Prussia. Among them are: Havas Agency, founded in 1832 by Charles Havas it is the first news agency that gives news to newspapers; the Le Figaro newspapers which already had a circulation of 35,000 copies; Le Siecle and Le Gaulois.
The hoped-for results are not long in coming and on July 15th King William I decrees the mobilization. On July 19th, the France of Louis Napoleon III declared war on Prussia considering this war event of fundamental importance for the acquisition of domestic political favor and European hegemony.
France, without adequate military and diplomatic preparation, and despite the opposition of the political majority, goes to war. The events unfortunately take another course as the French armed forces are defeated since the first clashes on the border; on July 28th, Napoleon III arrives in Metz to take command of the Army of the Rhine. Then other battles follow with losses and sieges of several important cities and forts, such as Strasbourg, Belfort, Bitche, Beuf-Brisach, Selstat, Metz, Wissembourg , Spichern and Froeschwiller.
The French army, commanded by Mac-Mahon, marches towards Sedan meeting the Prussian army that leaves no hope for the French troops: on September 1st, at 3.00 pm, in the presence of the French emperor, in order to avoid an encirclement and a probable massacre, the white flag is raised and Louis Napoleon III is constituted, marking the end of the French Empire.
Mac-Mahon is wounded and the new leader of the French army is General Wimpffen. On September 2nd marks the defeat of Sedan with the delivery to the enemy of 500 guns and 100,000 French soldiers taken prisoner.
The Prussian army, led on the field by General Helmulh-von-Moltke, met with little resistance, rapidly advancing towards Paris still incredulous of defeat and in the throes of violent riots; on 4th September, the legislative body, composed by 14 deputies – 8 Parisians and 6 from the province, pressed by angry mob for the fall of Empire, during a popular assembly in front of Hotel de Ville, – proclaimed the 3th French Republic. General Trochu becomes Head of the National Defense Governorate. In anticipation of a probable encirclement of Paris, on September 11st the Governorate appoints a delegation to settle in Tours to plan a defense.
The war proceeds amidst many French failures and a failed agreement between Jules-Favre and Bismarck on September 15th.
On the night of 13 September, the general manager of the Post and Telegraphs, François-Federic Steenacker, also moved to Tours, bringing with him about twenty carrier pigeons; Germain Rampont-Lechin and other government representatives, including Gambetta and Jules Favre, remain in charge of the Paris post office.
On the evening of September 18, the last train with passengers and postal cargo leaves Paris; during the night, the capital is surrounded on 19th begins the siege of Paris: from that moment it was no longer possible to leave and enter Paris. Even communications with the outside by telegraph were prevented by the Prussians with the cutting of wires; receiving food and other products is now impossible.
Some pedestrians, called passeurs, tried to cross the enemy blockade to bring government messages to Tours even for a fee but the risk of being captured and passed to arms remains high.


The idea of using gas balloons to take newspaper messages and correspondence out of Paris comes to Felix Tournachon known as Nadar, inventor, pilot and founder of the 1st Air Force Company together with other members of the Company, pilots and balloon manufacturers: Eugene Godard, Camille Legrand known as Dartois, Cherles, Jules Duruof and others; they went to the general director of post office, G. Rampont-Lechin to submit their idea which the director accepts, thus authorizing the organization of the departure of the first balloon, weather and war conditions permitting.
On Friday September 23rd, the airmen decide to prepare an “L’Union” balloon to carry out the flight; unfortunately, old, it breaks during the inflation operation and is immediately replaced with another balloon, “Le Neptune” of 1200 m3 built in 1863 and previously used anchored for observations.
To this experiment, the post offices entrust a postal load of 125 kg consisting mainly of dispatches, newspapers published on September 22nd and a few letters from private individuals chosen from those posted on the 21st but preferring those on the 22nd; newspapers and dispatches carry political news and what is happening in Paris, since four days had passed since the siege began, while private letters probably contain personal news.
Thus, in the presence of many people and of Nadar himself who photographed the preparation and departure, “Le Neptune” piloted by Jules Duruof, with his mail load and bags of ballast, leaves the French capital at 8:00 am from St. Pierre Square in Montmartre; after a three-hour flight, covering a distance of 104 km, the balloon descends into the park of Chateau de Cracouville where the postal load is entrusted to the nearest post office which provides for forwarding while the Duruof pilot reaches the government representatives in Tours and gives them the secret messages entrusted to him.
Having news of positive outcome of the experiment – probably through carrier pigeons – the director G. Rampont-Lechin informs Nadar and his companions, order continuing the preparation of other flights to dispose of existing and future correspondence. Thus, September 23th, 1870 marks the birth of the Air Mail, the first ever. This year marks 150 years.
Paris, at the time of the Prussian siege, is the most populated European capital with its 2 million inhabitants; in addition to the central post office, there are 39 post offices in the neighborhood, 19 in the suburbs within the walls and 8 outside the walls, still controlled by the French.
The private correspondence in stock has different formats and weights while, for the future, the Post Office director establishes precise rules in this regard with the affixing of the writing par Ballon Monté; furthermore, since the outcome of the service cannot be guaranteed due to the war situation, private correspondence is franked on the basis of the rates in force in relation to the countries to which it is intended, therefore without a surcharge.
Alongside the Ballon Monté, the Gazette des Absents or Lettre-Journal de Paris – invented by the publisher and typographer D. Jouaust – represent a testimony of the events in Paris besieged by Prussian troops; it is a folded sheet of only 4 grams where, on two sides, the main news were printed while the other two were available for private correspondence. The first issue dates 22 October 1870.
Other publishers copied Jouaust’s idea by naming them: Depeche-Ballons, Le Ballon-Poste, Journal-Poste, Journal-Ballon, L’Echo des Etrangers, Le Soir.
The problem of communicating with outside of Paris was thus solved while it remained to receive news from beyond the siege: only the government was able to communicate through carrier pigeons, a possibility that was then extended to private individuals also with the use of Boules de Moulins .
To meet the needs, in addition to the use of Empire-type stamps still available, the post offices issue new stamps with the effigy of Ceres, already adopted in 1849/50 for the second Republic. The values are 10c, 20c and 40c, the most commonly used. For printing, the plates kept at the “Monnaie de Paris” are used, which are essential to be able to proceed quickly with printing.
Subsequently, to meet the postage needs, the new Post and Telegraphs general manager, Steenackers proposes the issue of new stamps, again with the Ceres effigy, of other values: 1c, 2c, 4c, 5c, 10c, 20c, 30c, 40c and 80c, all of them not perfored; Subsequently, the 15c and 25c notched values called “Bordeaux Issue” were added: these are created for the needs of the Provinces, alongside the Empire-type stamps, while stocks last.
The second balloon that leaves Paris is “La Ville de Florence” of 1400 m3 with a postal load of 120 kg, 30 kg of leaflets to be thrown on the Prussian troops, 3 traveling pigeons donated by Godard; at the helm the aeronaut G. Mangin in the company of M. Lutz. Departure takes place on Sunday 25 September from Boulevard d’Italie at 11 am, two days after the departure of the first balloon.
After a 30km flight, it lands at 5pm in Plantes Deroches, 1km from Vernouillet.

The balloons that leave Paris are a total of 67, whose a small one, without the name “Non Denomme 1” of only 125 m3 with attached a package containing about 4 kg of cards (about 2000 pcs), future postal cards; it was launched on September 30 from Boulevard d’Italie and 15 km away intercepted and shot down by the Prussians. Falling, the casing breaks; the cards collected by the Parisians are delivered to the post office and sent in successive balloons, while those collected by the Prussians are kept as souvenirs.
For various reasons, the post office does not deliver postal loads to 11 balloons, but only coded dispatches to the pilots; almost all of them carry carrier pigeons.
Once the existing balloons are exhausted, new ones are built; the task is entrusted to Godard who transports his atelier to the Versailles railway station; Here, balloons of cubic sizes ranging from 2,000 to 2,450 m3 are made using linen fabrics, wicker carrycots, jute bags for mail and ballast and cages for carrier pigeons: all this is hung outside the baskets to facilitate movements and maneuvers of pilots and passengers.
Of 67 balloons lefting Paris during the Siege, 5 descend in Belgium, 2 in Holland, 2 are lost at sea, 2 in Prussia, 1 in Norway, 11 in occupied French territory; all the others land on free French territory.
The last balloon to leave Paris is “Le General Cambronne” of 2,045 m3 with Tristan at the helm, a mail load of only 20 kg that takes off from Gare de l’Est on 28 January 1871 at 6:00 am. After a flight of 253 km it descends at 13.00 to Sougè-le Ganelon, 15 km from Alençon.

Accepting Bismarck’s ultimatum, the Provisional Government discusses it during the night and the following morning Jules Favre and other members go to Versailles to sign the armistice, thus marking the end of the siege and the war: it is January 28, 1871.
The government is forced to accept the ultimatum as Parisians are now exhausted from hunger, even after killing all the animals, including those in the zoo; all this von Bismarck expected.
The peace is concluded with the Treaty of Frankfurt of 10 May 1871 signed by Minister Thiers and others of the Government, both residing in Paris and in Tours and Bordeaux, rectifying the peace preliminaries imposed by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck concerning an indemnity of five billion, the temporary occupation of part of the territory, the cession of Alsace and part of Lorraine as well as the parade of the victorious troops in Paris, on the Champs-Elysees.
(the occupied regions will return to France at the end of the last war).
After a few days, the return to normality begins, both with the resumption of the railway, postal and telegraphic service. The Prussians demand that the private mail out of Paris not be closed in order to carry out an inspection if necessary.
Some balloons carried personalities: the 6th, “L’Armand Barbes” had Leon Gambetta on board to organize an offensive; the 28th “Le Daguerre” transported Ernest Nobecourt and his dog with the material for the production of photographic films; the 29th “Le Niepce” with M. Davron and photographic material for microfilm; the 36th “La Bataille de Paris” with V. Hioux (professor and physicist) with material for the construction of an optical telegraph; on the 37th “Le Volta” technicians and photographers took their places to go to Algeria to document the solar eclipse; on the 39th “Le Denis Papin” he transported two of the creators of the Boules de Moulins with a prototype; on the 59th “Le General Faidherbe” dogs to search for pigeons; on the 61st “Le Steenackers” two dynamite crates were transported, but without passengers and mail.

All the mail written by the Parisians during the siege was carried by balloons; Sometimes it is difficult to determine which balloon a missive flew on because, in some days, two balloons left the French capital at the same time, therefore certain documents are defined where the departure and transit (or arrival) cancellation have a date close to each other: based on this, we go back to the balloon name. Otherwise, if the dates are very different, these documents are called probable.
In addition to the official correspondence, some documents were entrusted to pilots or passengers and can be recognized by the date of the writing, the postage and the lack of the departure cancellation from Paris but they have that of the post office closest to the place of landing. Due to their characteristics it is easy to identify which balloon they traveled on, it being understood that they are difficult to find documents and are a real rarity for the collector.

Initially the messages sent to Paris were entrusted to the pigeons for use by the government; with the improvement of Mr. Dagron and his collaborators who used microfilm films, this service was also extended to private individuals.
Other messages reached the French capital via Boules de Moulins, sealed spheres which, sailing on the bottom of the Seine, contained 500 to 800 letters.
The “pigeongrammes” service for the public starts on November 4th at a cost of 50 cents. per word with a maximum of twenty words; while on November 10 a message-reply service with a maximum of forty words is created.
Initially the messages were written in very small print on very thin paper.
We owe to the chemist Charles-Louis Barreswil the proposal to photographically reduce the writings, a proposal collected and created by Gabriel Blaise. The technique was rapidly improving, first with 4 x 6 cm photographs on one side only, then on both sides.
On November 12nd Rene-Prudent Dagron, famous photographer, specialist in microphotography, leaves Paris aboard the “Le Niepce” balloon, bringing with him equipment to make dispatches on very fine, resistant and light films, thus giving the possibility to have more messages carried at the same time to pigeons.
Once in Paris, the messages were projected, enlarged, transcribed and sent to the recipients.
The use of pigeons is suspended on February 1st.
To solve the problem of getting the letters to Paris, Emile Robert, Pierre-Charles Delort and J. Vonoven created a finned zinc sphere that could contain 500/800 letters; once hermetically sealed and immersed in the Seine duly ballasted, it could rotate dragged by the currents of the waters to reach Paris where it was fished out by means of special nets.
Given the success of this sphere, the creators patented it on November 23rd and the director of the post office Germain Rampont-Lechin signed a contract for their use.
On 7 December the inventors with a prototype left Paris aboard the “Le Denis Papin” balloon.
Through notices, the public was informed of this service: the letters had to bear the inscription Paris par Moulins and have a maximum weight of 4 g, addressed to Moulins and franked with a 1 franc stamp of which 20 cents for the post office and 80 cents for the creation of the Boules and the service.
Of the 35 Boules shipped, about 30 were fished out; the last discovery dates back to April 14th, 1982.
The use of the Boules de Moulins ceases on January 31st, 1871.
As of February 10th, 1871, over 14,600 letters were still stored awaiting dispatch to Moulins or Cosne; as far as we know, the first Boules was rescued on March 6, 1871 in Andelys (Eure).
Moreover, to bring correspondence to Paris, an attempt was made to reuse the balloons that left the capital; after several attempts, the idea was abandoned as, due to the currents, the balloons couldn’t be directed.


The study of the Ballon Monté, like all the other writings that have been handed down to us, not only enrich the postal history for the exceptional nature of the means of transport then used, but with their human charge, testify the sufferings and passions of thousands of Parisians during the four months of the siege:

23 September 1870: «…. We are in a circle of iron and fire with no news from the outside…. You will be luckier than me because the first balloon that will carry our letters should leave Paris today. It is an event…. We can only use air. It is therefore to her that we entrust our hopes, our pains and our tenderness for those we love…. “

November 15, 1870: «…. Superb rats are displayed in the shop windows. I saw at Chevez, at the Palais Royal, some cute mice, cooked in a tantalizing way, with refinement, as you saw quail and larks on skewers before the war…. You can well imagine that the animals of the Jardin des Plantes and the Acclimatation are only seen stuffed; the big bosses will have taken charge of saving these expenses to the city, eating them out of a patriotic spirit…. Cows are as rare as blue foxes; they are kept for hospitals and babies as the nurses have become as dry as figs…. “

December 9, 1870: «…. Wood and everything related to heating has become very rare…. and what’s more there is a Siberian cold…. During my wandering excursions, I ended up discovering a pile of demolition beams, full of plaster and a composition of coal for factories…. To make this discovery I had to loot the area behind the Pere Lachaise and I assure you that in the evening I was exhausted…. the cellar was full of these various debris and we were happy as kings…. “

January 12, 1871: «…. The bombardment is getting stronger. The bombs come flying four at a time, every five minutes. It’s a shower…. This letter will leave tonight with the Faidherbe balloon…. I received by pigeon a dispatch that Isabelle had sent from Pornic to her mother on December 26th. It took him seventeen days …. There is a shortage of paper, the Parisian newspapers appear with chocolate tints; I believed for a moment that it was a fantasy, a sign of mourning…. They explained to me that the paper had become rare, so we are forced to reuse the old paper that is bleached with the help of chemicals to erase the writing…. “

February 8, 1871: «…. After five months of siege, after having resisted with courage and self-denial, Paris, exhausted and starved, had to surrender. History will tell our descendants about the heroic battles of its defenders and the patriotism of its inhabitants, who patiently endured the hardest privations, the sufferings of hunger, the rigors of the cold and the terror of a fierce bombing…. I have resisted the cold, the hunger and all the miseries of this long siege, but I assure you that the lack of news is far more painful than all this…. “