Object in Focus

Balloon Handkerchief


Handkerchief with balloon design; Alsace, France; ca.1783. V&A 1872-1899








Prepared by: Dawn Hoskin, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Read the full paper here.

This handkerchief, V&A 1872-1899 (fig.1), was produced in Alsace (now part of France) in commemoration of the first ascent of a manned, hydrogen-filled balloon from the Tuileries Palace on 1st December 1783. It will be displayed in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s new Europe 1600-1800 Galleries, opening in December 2014. In a display entitled ‘Balloonmania’, it will help to convey how early balloon flight caught popular imagination across Europe and how this enthusiasm was reflected in the production of fashionable and domestic goods.

The handkerchief is a cotton square, plain-weave, block-printed in red, yellow and black, and pencilled with indigo dye. The two vertical edges of have been left as raw selvages, whilst the horizontal edges have been tightly hemmed. Each side of the handkerchief’s border (fig.2) is composed of a symmetrical pattern which shows a classical building (the Tuileries Palace) in the background. The foreground contains a fountain, a line of trees and a number of promenading figures, the majority of whom are gesturing to, or looking up at, the balloon above them in the centre of the design. The balloon is shown within a stylised medallion, suggestive of a cloud, contained in a red square. Suspended from the balloon by ropes is a decorative gondola basket containing two men, each holding a flag. The balloon and gondola both have a vertical line of symmetry through the centre. At each corner of the handkerchief is a silhouette cameo of key individuals involved in the flight (fig.3). Each medallion is decorated with foliage and blue ribbon, with the individual’s name lettered around the top: Ludovicus XVI; Montgolfier; Charles; and Robert. The whole design is framed by a printed edging pattern of beading.

The depiction of the balloon and the Tuileries Palace on the handkerchief can be recognised in a number of contemporary prints recording the flight. The handkerchief design combines and adapts elements from different sources; both aesthetic and practical considerations would have informed the production process. Comparison with textual accounts of the event allows identification of the ways in which the design distorted the story of the event or included factually incorrect information.

This handkerchief was probably intended to be used by individuals partaking in the growing fashion of snuff-taking. A snuff-taker would have sneezed into it and wiped his or her face and hands on it. The brown residue resulting from snuff use would appear unsightly on handkerchiefs with paler designs and so, as the fashion for snuff increased, there was a growing market for more practical designs which would help to disguise these stains. The busy design around the edges and the expanse of red and black in the centre of this handkerchief would have been suited to this purpose. Its intended use as a snuff handkerchief, in addition to other factors, could account for the apparent rarity of surviving examples of this design.[1]

[1] In research undertaken for this article, only two other examples of this design were able to be located, both in the Musée de l’Impression sur Etoffes. The example numbered MISE 858.76.1M featured in two exhibitions at the Musée Oberkampf, the first L’Histoire vue à travers la Toile Imprimée in 1981 (cat. no. 29, p. 17) and in 2008-9. The other example is featured in Margarete Braun-Ronsdorf, The History of the Handkerchief (Leigh-on-Sea, England: F. Lewis, 1967), fig.67 and appears to be a different colourway.


Related material

Visual sources

Fig.2 Detail of the handkerchief's border with the Tuileries Palace

Fig.3 Detail of the handkerchief's corner showing a silhouette cameo

Fig.4 Tin-glazed earthenware bottle with painted decoration; Thomas Morgan and Abigail Griffith; London (Lambeth High Street); 1784. V&A 3846-1901

Fig.5 Porcelain saucer painted in enamels and gilt, made by Sèvres porcelain factory; France; 1784. V&A C.114-1972

Fig.6 Sampler embroidered in coloured silks by Mary Hall; England; 1786. V&A Circ.45-1922

Fig.7 Detail of border imagery showing apparatus used to fill the balloon with hydrogen

Fig.8 Handkerchief, cut work and needle lace; Flemish; 1600-1615. V&A 484-1903

Fig.9 Detail of flaws in printing process by cameo of Mongolfier

Fig.10 Detail of flaws in the printing process by cameo of Charles

Fig.11 Detail of embroidered 'B' in the design

Fig.12 Printed silk handkerchief with a design celebrating victories of the 1st Duke of Marlborough; England; 1707. V&A T.85-1934







Braun-Ronsdorf, Margarete, The History of the Handkerchief (Leigh-on-Sea, England: F. Lewis, 1967)
Cumming, Valerie, C. W. Cunnington and P. E. Cunnington, The Dictionary of Fashion History (Berg Publishers, 2010)
Fortier, Rénald, The Balloon Era (Canada Aviation Museum, 2004)
Franklin, Benjamin, Private Correspondence of Benjamin Franklin, vol.1 (London: Published for Henry Colburn, by R. Bentley, New Burlington Street, 1833)
Gillespie, Richard, ‘Ballooning in France and Britain, 1783-1786: Aerostation and Adventurism,’ Isis, vol. 75, No. 2 (June, 1984)
Grant, Sarah, Toiles de Jouy French Printed Cottons (V&A Publishing, 2010)
Heppenheimer, T.A., A Brief History of Flight: From Balloons to Mach 3 and Beyond (John Wiley & Sons, 2000)
Holmes, Richard, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (HarperPress, 2009)
Jackson, E. Neville, The History of Silhouettes (London: The Connoisseur, 1911)
Le Temps des Ballons Art et Histoire (Paris: Éditions de La Martinière, 1994)
Roche, Daniel, translated by Jean Birrell, The Culture of Clothing: Dress and Fashion in the Ancien Regime (Cambridge: Past & Present Publications and Cambridge University Press, 1994)
Schoeser, Mary, Printed Handkerchiefs (London: Museum of London, 1988)
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Starr, Siegle, Toiles for All Seasons: French and English Printed Textiles (Bunker Hill Publishing Inc., 2004)
Stevenson, Gertrude Scott (translated and edited by), The Letters of Madame, vol. II 1709-1722, (London: Arrowsmith, 1925)
Straeten, Judith, Toiles De Jouy (Biggs Smith, 2002)
de Thoisy-Dallen, Anne, Ballons et montgolfières dans la toile imprimée XVIIIe – XIXe siècles (France: Musée de la Toile de Jouy, 2008)
Ward, Gerald W.R., The Grove Encyclopedia of Materials and Techniques in Art (Oxford University Press, 2008)


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