Air Balloon Expedition and Women during the 18th Century

Air Balloon Expedition and Women during the 18th Century

   In 1783, a 'sublime invention' stunned France and the rest of the world (Lynn)

    The noise of travel during the 18th century began with an air movement Walpole calls the “balloonmania.” In 1783, curiosity of air sparked an idea with the Montgolfier brothers which led to a unique invention of travel. The movement revolved around air ballooning and “the enthusiasm for ballooning, [which] had transformed into an object of ‘public curiosity’” (Keen, 2006). Not only did this discovery create a symbolic time for travel but it was a “cultural phenomenon” that began in France and spread into England. In June 1783, Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier launched the first balloon from Versailles, with animal passengers (note: the crowd watching included the Royal Family). The balloon stayed afloat for a record of ten minutes and maintained a height of three thousand feet from the ground. The balloon traveled for approximately a mile and a half before crashing. This first flight with animals caught public interest and in return, the first human air balloon flight was launched in October of 1783 (Remington). “More than 100,000 spectators would gather in fields and city rooftops to witness the pioneers of human flight” (King, 2012). This sudden interest in air ballooning caused publics to hold science to higher standards.

     The unearthing of ballooning evoked an “age of travelers and travelling authors” (Keen, 2006). Playwrights such as Elizabeth Inchbald recognized the strong interest in ballooning and used the subject to better the chances of her farce, The Mogul Tale; or The Descent of the Balloon being published and performed in the theater. Most authors knew that “balloonmania” was “an inspired argument: balloons were useful precisely because they reflected ‘the ingenuity of the age.’ Ballooning, drew lines for society including science, business and how the movement appealed to a diverse audience including “senators, philosophers, ladies, everybody.” Balloons became a recurring theme and a driving factor of culture throughout the 18th century.

     Ballooning introduced an entire fashion industry for women (and men) it “ascended to a higher element” in society. “The epithet of balloon was annexed to articles of dress, of house-furniture, and instruments.” Balloons began to appear everywhere during the 18th century – dishes, wallpapers, clocks, jewelry and furniture upholstery. The common terms “balloon hats” or “balloon coaches” originated from the “balloonmania” movement.

Different aeronaut (balloonists) styled balloons.

About This Project


Brenna Elizabeth Fleis


From sparked curiosity and interest in Elizabeth Inchbald’s, Mogul Tale, this exhibit illustrates and defines the history and popular culture of hot air ballooning and women to experience the first flights of ballooning in the 18th century.

"Taking a flight in a hot air balloon is the most adventurous experience one can enjoy, said visitors near the adventure zone at the ongoing Lucknow Mahotsava: - The Times of India (December 2, 2014)


Watercolor painting of the Montgolfier brother's hot air balloon above a crowd of spectators (1784)


Pocket watch that has an hot-air balloon as décor on the cover frame.

Balloons became enormously fashionable at this time (Lynn)

     In 1783, after the balloon frenzy began, everyone “invested in ballooning merchandise” (Lynn). Besides the balloon themed clothing, some women went to the next level and created fashion such as balloon hats, balloon skirts, and hair styles that resembled balloons. So while men focused on riding in the balloons, the women found the popular balloon phenomenon as a way to experience the balloon frenzy without contributing to the science or physical activity. The decoration of balloons attracted most women due to their feminine characteristics and ornate designs. Pictured below is the original Montgolfier balloon that “had a ground of azure blue against which were strikingly contrasted in gold the cipher of Louis XVI, blazing Apollo heads, the signs of the zodiac, eagles with spread wings, and richly tasseled lambrequins” (Remington).

     Balloon rides or subscriptions as they called them, were fairly priced because they wanted not only the elite to enjoy them but all parties. Most aeronauts, defined by Brant as those who sailed in the air, “designed to limit the purchase of tickets to the wealthy,” making ballooning a popular experience for anyone and everyone. “Discourses of flight were notionally open to all…but were less open to women,” who did not have the education advantages that men did (Brant).  

     Ballooning raised many issues with gender. An issue that was constantly coming up with prevention of women and balloon was weight. Ballooning and specifically “the pursuit of flight in practice was not readily open to women” (Brant). However, women could buy tickets for balloon subscriptions but studies showed that most women who bought tickets were generally married. One man who ended up making ballooning his career, was the first to take passengers in his balloon for excursions. Jean-Pierre Blanchard, made his living as a professional balloonists beginning in March 1784. Most of society who rode in the balloons were always accompanied by a balloonists, especially women and children (Lynn).

      Sophie Blanchard, was born Marie Madeleine-Sophie Armant and married professional balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard. Sophie is recorded as the first female professional balloonist. She was born before the Montgolfier brothers began experimenting with the balloon idea. But not long after the discovery of the balloons was she married to Blanchard and worked with him and his ballooning adventures. Below is a link to a short animated video about Sophie Blanchard and her ballooning voyage.

The Montgolfier brothers' 1784 balloon 


Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier

Linda Donn's book about Sophie Blanchard and the first female balloon flight 


Elizabeth Inchbald (1753-1821)

She was one of the first women to be known for her novels, playwrights and acting. Elizabeth Inchbald, first known as Elizabeth Simpson was raised in a Roman Catholic family and she was educated with her siblings. She first moved to London in hopes of establishing her acting career, although acting for women was scarce. While in London, she  married Joseph Inchbald, also a catholic and involved in the theater. A few years after their marriage, Joseph died but Elizabeth continued her acting career which grew immensely. Besides her acting, Inchbald wrote comedies, dramas, and farces which were then published. Her first play (farce), Mogul Tale; or The Descent of the Balloon, was accepted for production in 1784. The Mogul Tale, tells a story of an English couple and a doctor whom take a hot air balloon expedition and end up going off course and landing in India. The idea of hot air ballooning and traveling is what makes the play popular. Inchbald was a significant female figure during the romantic period in London. She was widely known for her acting until her works became published. 


Works Cited

"Air Balloons." The Illustrated Magazine of Art 3.15 (1854): 164-65. JSTOR. Web. 11 Nov. 2014. PDF File. Digital Image.

This article provided images that inspired the idea to research more into the history of hot air ballooning. It also provided key terms such as “aeronautic” and “aerostatic machine” that helped when searching for more scholarly research.

Bhadoria, Sonal. "Balloons Bring Excitement to Mahotsava Air - The Times of India." The Times of India. Times Internet Limited, 2 Dec. 2014. Web. 04 Dec. 2014.

This is a recent article I found about the hot air ballooning adventures in India.

Brant, Clare. ""I Will Carry you with me on the Wings of Imagination": Aerial Letters and Eighteenth-century Ballooning." Eighteenth Century Life. 1st ed. Vol. 35. N.P.: Duke UP, 2010. 168-87. Print.

This included letters which spoke about air travel and how women were treated when it came to piloting balloons or riding as passengers in them. It spoke about the specific discourses of flight in hot air balloons and reiterated the cultural significance of the invention of the hot air balloon in France and England.

Cuchet, Chez. "Voyages: A Smithsonian Libraries Exhibition." Voyages: A Smithsonian Libraries Exhibition. Smithsonian Libraries, 1784. Web. 12 Nov. 2014. Digital Image.

This site included images of early air ballooning and provided information for captions of the images.

Gillispie, Charles. “The Montgolfier Brothers and the Invention of Aviation. Princeton University Press, 1983. Print.

This source found from the site on Sophie Blanchard. It just provided personal information about the two brothers that first invented the balloon and how they learned about the idea heat causing paper and garments to rise.

Hollond, R., Upcott, William. "Balloon, Ascensions, Aeronautics, Balloonists." Scrapbook of Early Aeronautica. Vol. 1-3, Smithsonian Libraries, 1783. Print. Digital Images.

This included information about early ballooning and provided various pictures of the aeronautics behind hot air ballooning. This provided in detail the basics of ballooning in society and why it became such a large invention for travelers.

Keen, Paul. "The "Balloonmania" Science and Spectacle in 1780s England." Eighteenth Century Studies 39.4 (2006): 507-35. JSTOR. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.

This article inspired the idea of “balloonmania” and also suggested different terms for the balloon movement throughout England and France. It provided background information about the societal views of ballooning along with travel during the 18th century. It surprisingly offered brief information about Elizabeth Inchbald’s the Mogul Tale and the connection with hot air balloons.

Kotar, S L, and J E. Gessler. Ballooning: A History, 1782-1900. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland, 2011. Print.

This also provided history behind the ballooning and the first adventures, for example when the Montolfier brothers began working on this experiment to the first testing of the balloon.

Lynn, Michael R. "Selling Science: Balloons, Commerce, and Mass Culture in Eighteenth Century France." Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Western Society for French History 30 (n.d.): 212-21. JSTOR. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.

This article wrote about the historical elements and culture of ballooning in France during the Eighteenth Century. It began with the Montgolfier brothers and continued into the effects that ballooning had on the French society, including fashion and travel.

Remington, Preston. "A Monument Honoring the Invention of the Balloon." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 2.8 (1944): 241-48. JSTOR. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.

This article spoke of the art of ballooning. It described the first works of the Montgolfier brothers and included descriptions of what the spectator’s reactions were and detailed events of each balloon adventure. This included more information about the decoration of items in balloon themes, such as furniture, jewelry, clocks, etc.

Ribeiro, Aileen. Fashion in the French Revolution. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1988

This provided information of the fashion that was born from the balloon era. It is from a fashion encyclopedia about fashion during different centuries.

Rivers, David. Literary memoirs of living authors of Great Britain, arranged according to an alphabetical catalogue of their Names; and including a list of their works, with occasional opinions upon their literary character. In two volumes. ... Vol. 1. London,1798. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. VALE - Seton Hall University. 3 Dec. 2014 

This article gave the biographical information and picture of Elizabeth Inchbald.

Sarudy, Barbara. "Hot Air Balloons! 1780s-1790s France to Britain to Early America." Web log post. It's about Time. N.p., 7 Sept. 2014. Web. 2 Dec. 2014. <>. Digital Image.


Warnes, Kathy. "Madam Sophie Blanchard." Windows to World History. 2001. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. PDF File. Digital Image.

This article was about Sophie Blanchard and her connection to ballooning. It provided other sources for the Montgolfier brother which are cited as well.

Walpole, Correspondence, 25: 542. (Mentioned in Balloonmania, Paul Keen 2006).

This was a brief citation that was found in Paul Keen’s article. Warpole was the one who claimed the term “balloonmania” and I used this citation to announce that.