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Par Ballon Monte Letter from the Siege of Paris in 1870

Updated: May 6

On July 16, 1870, fearing the loss of its dominant position in continental Europe, France declared war on the North German Confederation led by the Kingdom of Prussia. The Franco-Prussian War, as it came to be known, began in earnest on August 2, 1870, when French troops invaded German territory. German forces proved superior, however, and pushed into France. Beginning September 19, 1870, the Germans laid siege to Paris. The siege ended more than four months later - January 28, 1871, to be exact - when Paris surrendered. France then opened peace talks and consented to German demands for territory and war reparations.


The Siege of Paris took a tremendous on the population. There were severe food and fuel shortages. In addition, over the span of 23 nights in January, the Germans fired some 12,000 artillery shells into the city. Although the French argued the bombardment had little effect on morale, about 400 Parisians were killed or wounded.


With transportation into or out of Paris impossible and telegraph lines cut, Parisians resorted to a novel way to communicate with the rest of France and the world: balloons. On September 23, 1870, the first balloon, named Le Neptune (Figure 1), lifted off from Paris with about 280 pounds of mail. The balloon's trajectory was at the fate of the winds, and Le Neptune landed about 60 miles west of Paris. The mail was then unloaded and dispatched to its destination.


Figure 1 - The first flight of a Par Ballon Monte, Le Neptune, on September 23, 1870.


After this successful flight, a regular mail service - called "Par Ballon Monte" meaning "by manned balloon" - was established with a rate of 20 centimes per letter. In all, 66 balloons lifted off from Paris during the siege each with a pilot, one or more passengers, and homing pigeons. (The pigeons were used to carry news back into Paris.) Most of the balloons landed safely in France or Belgium, and between 2.5 million and 3 million pieces of mail were delivered, including the example shown in Figure 2.


Figure 2 - Par Ballon Monte Cover. Source: Author's collection.


The stamp on the cover depicts, Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. The 20-centimes stamp was issued in 1870.


The postmark on the cover is from "Paris Rue Taitbout" and is dated November 17, 1870. Unfortunately, the cover does not have a transit or receipt postmark, but it was likely transported out of Paris on the balloon Le General Ulrich, which departed Paris on November 18, 1870, at 11:15 p.m. and carried letters dated between November 15 and November 18. It was the first night flight out of Paris, a practice started after several balloons had been captured by the Prussians. In addition to the pilot, the balloon carried about 180 pounds of mail, three passengers, and 34 pigeons. The winds apparently shifted after the balloon lifted off, and it was almost blown back into Paris. It ended up landing at Luzarches, about 20 miles north of Paris, at around 8:00 a.m. the next morning. This was enemy-occupied territory, but the passengers and mail were eventually carried to safety. This letter was delivered to Niort, France, which is about 250 miles southwest of Paris.


Like many Par Balloon Monte letters, this item consists of a two-page news journal printed front and back on one half of a sheet of paper that measures 10-3/4 inches wide by 8-5/8 inches high. The other half was for correspondence and the address.


Figures 3 and 4 show the news journal of this particular cover; Figures 3A and 4A are their translations. It is issue number 3 of the Lettre-Journal De Paris, also known as Gazette des Absent, dated October 29, 1870. These mini news journals were the brainchild of Damase Jouaust, a printer, editor and publisher. These news journals provided people outside of Paris with news of the siege at the same time they received private correspondence. As Jouaust wrote at the end of this bulletin:


We published our first issue with no preamble, no program. We felt that our idea was good, that it addressed a real need, and we counted on the public’s intelligence to understand it and adopt it without explanation. Our hopes were not misplaced, and our success has even greatly exceeded our expectations. Our first two issues were bought up with such enthusiasm that we could not satisfy all demands. It is clear that this publication will more often bring pens to the hands of those who write only rarely, and because of this we are happy for our absents, who will see a greater number of the letters they so desire, bringing them news from Paris.


This news journal was published about five weeks into the siege. In addition to reports on military activity and balloon departures, it also reports on the state of provisions in the city. The news on that front was upbeat, noting that the populace was "assured that there would be no rationing of bread before January 1st, and until then we will have wine and horsemeat in abundance."


The correspondence in this item is shown in Figure 5. The translation is as follows:


Paris, 17 November 70

            My dear Rosine


I wrote to you on the 14th asking you to send news of yourself. I say it again in case my letter from the 14th did not make it to you.


You will see in the printed matter on the reverse what the conditions for correspondence are.


Don’t forget, after news of the whole family, to tell me about the commandery [possibly, French HQ] if you know something of it.


We don’t know who you used to remove the rugs, Monfort claims it wasn’t him.


Georges still has jaundice. This illness doesn’t bother him at all, but the doctor is forcing him to stay home. Arthur keeps him company, to the point that the house rather resembles an ambulance.


Henri’s situation worries me – where could he [be] now? Since he could be in correspondence with you, I therefore recommend that you not send me news of him.


Provisions are not too hard to come by yet, except beef; we find enough vegetables, but everything is excessively expensive, to the point that the poor are in dire straits; luckily, the bread tax is currently rather low.


Goodbye, my dear Rosine, kisses to you and Albert

[signature]

Many regards from me to the whole family and acquaintances


The last name of the recipient and the signature of the sender are illegible so it's impossible to determine who they were. Nonetheless, this is an interesting piece of postal history.


My thanks to Eugenia Tietz-Sokolskaya (www.sokolskayatranslations.com) for her translation of the letter and news journal.


Figure 3


Figure 3A


Figure 4


Figure 4A


Figure 5






 



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