The Rise of Balloon Photography in Philadelphia

“Balloon View of Philadelphia from about one mile high, July 4th, 1893.” By William Nicholson Jennings. (PhillyHistory)

Jean-Pierre Blanchard wanted to make a splash, figuratively, not literally. He arrived  from France, 220 years ago, planning a display of showmanship that would, if successful, be the first balloon ascension in Americaand his 45th.

On January 9, 1793, the French aeronaut and inventor readied his balloon in the prison yard at 6th and Walnut Streets, accepted best wishes from President George Washington and other luminaries, and floated skyward. Blanchard metaphorically lived his motto: Sic itur ad astra—to the stars. More precisely, he went to Deptford, New Jersey.

If not made useful, such feats of technology, skill, daring and luck were of little value. Blanchard made use of his time aloft conducting a variety of measurements and experiments, the results of which were recorded in a small book published in Philadelphia with a pleasant illustration of his balloon. Engravings were all they had in Blanchard’s time; it would be nearly half a century before photography allowed aeronauts to dream of returning to earth with “you-are-there” documentation.

The first successful aerial photographs in America,” taken above Boston in 1860, were made from Samuel A. King’s balloon, the “Queen of the Air.” And President Lincoln’s war machine soon put aerial photography to work against Confederate troops. But King didn’t much care for sharing his basket with photographers. Another three decades passed before he went aloft with Philadelphia photographer William Nicholson Jennings.

In the early 1890s, King, brought the “Eagle Eyrie” up from his home in Tinicum to Fairmount Park for annual July 4th ascensions. In 1934, Jennings reminisced about their partnership in “Snapshots from Cloudland,” published in the Journal of the Franklin Institute.

William Nicholson Jennings’ view to the east: Girard College, Eastern State and North Philadelphia. July 4, 1893. (PhillyHistory)

As King prepped, Jennings found a moment to approach “the genial aeronaut to make a bid for a place in the basket for the purpose of making aerial snapshots.” King stared back “with an eye blue as the sky he loved to sail in; stroked his long beard, fleecy as any cloud he had passed through, and remarked: ‘My charge for a passenger is fifty dollars; but if you expect to make good photographs on your first balloon trip … you will be wasting your time and money.’” A first-time passenger would succumb to nerves and produce double exposures, blurred images, use erroneous settings, and on top of all of that, the summer’s “blue haze between balloon and landscape” would result in “thin,” “washy” negatives. Plus, King added, “escaping coal gas from the balloon would create a chemical fog.”

Undeterred, Jennings conducted experiments from the top of the Washington, Monument and devised a combination of orthochromatic plates and a light yellow lens filters and got him “bright, snappy” negatives. He made a “gas-tight” camera, and showed both to King.

Re-enactment of the Nation’s First Air Voyage, in “La Coquette.” January 9, 1968. (PhillyHistory)

On the Fourth of July, 1893, as “the Municipal Band struck up ‘My Sweetheart’s the Man in the Moon,’ all Jennings had to do was to “forget nerves, wait until the desired section of landscape came into view” hold his breath and press the button.” He “made several exposures while passing over Philadelphia at the height of about a mile…securing sharp, crisp, clear-cut negatives, from which I afterward made a number of 40” x 50” enlargements for exhibition at the Crystal Palace, London.”

King and Jennings would continue to collaborate, but their demise (King in 1914; Jennings in 1946) would hardly mark the end of the Philadelphia balloon story.

In 1956, when Hollywood adapted Jules Verne’s 1873 novel, Around the World in Eighty Days, producer Mike Todd lined up an all-star cast including David Niven and the young Shirley McLaine. The film, which won an Academy Award for Best Picture, also featured appearances by Noel Coward, Buster Keaton, Peter Lorre, Red Skelton, Marlene Dietrich and Frank Sinatra. For the all-important role of the balloon, Todd turned to his friend; the self-described Philadelphia “balloonatic” Constance Wolf, who lent  her beloved “La Coquette.” The first woman to cross the Alps in a balloon, Wolf would promote the film by piloting “La Coquette” over London and Paris after its release. No surprise that, in 1959, she would replicate Blanchard’s first American ascension, and would inflate “La Coquette” again for another re-enactment, seen here, in January 1968.