This month I read Balloonmania Belles by Sharon Wright and am happy to say this was a great read! Much of the book falls within the FFF timeline of 1880-1930, although the book begins in 1783 when the Montgolfier brothers unleashed the first balloon carrying living beings (animals) into the air successfully in France.
The book follows the lives of Balloonmania’s earliest and most notable flying females. Each chapter is devoted to one or two main belles and their stories are interspersed within a broader historical context. I appreciated that this book was able to provide a lot of information on these ladies that is otherwise very difficult to procure, as there is no comprehensive guide that concentrates on female aeronautical pioneers. I wish the book included even more images of the women it describes, but in doing my own search, I know these are difficult to find if they exist at all.
Balloonmania Belles mentions that many women were attracted to flying in balloons because it offered an exciting activity outside of the home that was still deemed suitable for women. This included noblewomen who could afford to pay for such a ride, like the fashionably dressed princess above, but ballooning attracted women from all walks of life. Wright notes:
Stars of the stage were peculiarly suited to being the first women aloft. They were professionals, with the ability to master their nerves and perform under pressure. They were also glamorous and enjoyed the attention. – p. 124
Specifically as relates to fashion, I found a few mentions of wearing a “waterproof,” also known as a raincoat, in the balloon basket. This makes sense from a practical standpoint as you are exposed to the elements in the air. Other women who later parachuted from a hot air balloon would wear a kind of bloomer suit in the early 1900s (see one of Dolly Shepherd’s looks far below). Otherwise, the type of garments worn seemed more dependent on temperature and social station.
Other women dressed well, perhaps not necessarily in luxurious fabrics, but in garments meant to impress and look stylish. Many of these balloon ascensions were public events that crowds of onlookers would pay to see (which was often used as a means to finance the ascension) and this suited some of the natural performers who took to the skies as mentioned above.
Miss Elizabeth “Lily” Cove was one such performer. Cove is one of the Belles chronicled in Chapter 9. Cove became better known as “Leaping Lily,” a traveling aeronaut entertainer of the early 1900s. Wright wrote of Lily:
Her trademark trick of tearing off her skirt and hopping onto her trapeze wearing beribboned bloomers quickly made her famous. – p. 668
Miss Cove is certainly not the only brazen female to be detailed in Balloonmania Belles. I think what made the Belles’ stories so impactful was how dangerous flying in a balloon could be. Cove, herself, died at the young age of 20 when her parachute didn’t open. It seems like a relatively safe, albeit adventurous, activity today, but many of these balloon trips were ill-fated in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They were much more difficult to control than they are now, and many balloons (and riders) were consumed in flames. The earliest models stayed aloft by burning rubbish or hydrogen(!). Considering the danger, it’s amazing that ballooning was a fashionable hobby, although this was also undoubtedly part of the attraction.
Other Forward Femmes mentioned in Balloonmania Belles are:
- Mrs. Van Tassel (first name is unknown) from Chapter 6 – she was known for parachuting out of a balloon over Los Angeles on July 4, 1888, after being told by the police that ballooning was a “men-only” activity.
- Mary Breed Hawley from Chapter 6 – known as Carlotta the Lady Areonaut, she and her husband lived on a “balloon farm” in the late 19th century, where he would build balloons and she would fly. She had a very narrow escape when her balloon got caught in a storm and deposited her high in a tree which further solidified her fame.
- Gertrude Bacon from Chapter 7 -another turn-of-the-century balloon-riding enthusiast who notably had a death-defying plummet after ascending to watch a meteor shower with her father. She escaped with a broken arm and was undeterred in continuing her passion for ballooning.
- Dolly Shephard from Chapter 9- a parachuting balloonmania belle, who surprisingly lived until 96. She survived a particularly harrowing experience when she crashed and wasn’t sure if she’d be able to walk again.
- Muriel Matters from Chapter 9 – the courageous, flying suffragette. She used hot air balloons to draw attention to the suffragette cause.
Balloonmania Belles provides a detailed description of the most remarkable ladies to first fly in balloons. The women above just scratches the surface of the depths of the lives of these women, and are only some of the other women mentioned in the book. The information seems largely based on autobiographies of the ladies themselves or newspaper articles from the period. It’s amazing to consider the bravado and courage of these women and overall is certainly worth a read! Balloonmania Belles gives a glimpse into the lives of fearless ladies who craved adventure, and chronicles some unusual paths taken in relation to other women of the era.
** Note: page numbers provided correspond with the Epub phone version of the book
Wright, Sharon. Balloonmania Belles: Daredevil Divas Who First Took to the Sky. South Yorkshire: Pen and Sword Books Ltd., 2018.
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