Object of the Month

The Balloon Post: Susan Hale celebrates the birth of airmail and raises money for war relief in 1871 Boston

Balloon Post, No. 1, 11 April 1871 Periodical

Balloon Post, No. 1, 11 April 1871


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    Susan Hale's charity fair newspaper, the Balloon Post, existed for only six numbers from 11-17 April 1871, but it brought her onto the public stage as an author and editor, and publicized an outpouring of American support for France and aid for refugees during the Franco-Prussian War.

    Le Ballon-Poste

    Hale's newspaper took its name from the Ballon-Poste, a miniature newssheet that had been published in besieged Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and flown out of the beleaguered city by balloon. The idea of airmail (each two-page issue of the Ballon-Poste served as a cover sheet for a one-page personal message to the outside world) was both novel and romantic. Along with the first airmailed newspapers, the daredevil balloonists flew government dispatches, tons of civilian "airmail" (personal letters written on thin sheets of paper like the Ballon-Poste), as well as human and animal cargos out of the city: the French statesman Leon Gambetta left Paris on an early flight to organize a doomed attempt to lift the siege; and homing pigeons and courier dogs were carried out in order to return to the city with messages from "outside." The Ballon-Poste captured the public imagination everywhere, especially where there was sympathy for war-ravaged France.

    Susan Hale

    Susan ("Susie") Hale was born in Boston in 1833, the youngest of the eight children of Nathan and Sarah Preston Everett Hale. The newspaper business was in her blood; her father and two of her brothers were, in turn, editors of the Boston Daily Advertiser. An older brother, the Rev. Edward Everett Hale, a prolific writer and reformer, was the best known of the talented Hale children, but perhaps because he was the only sibling to marry, the brothers and sisters remained closely connected through a lively and entertaining family correspondence. Young Susan gravitated into the orbit of her eldest sister Lucretia ("Luc"). Although she was interested in art from an early age, "Susie"—as she signed her letters—cared for her parents and kept a school, first at the family home in Brookline and then at the foot of Beacon Hill in Boston. In 1867 she travelled to Egypt with Lucretia where they were escorted to Holy Land sites by their brother Charles, then the U.S. consul general in Egypt.

    The Fair for Relief of Suffering in France

    By 1870 Hale was back in Boston where her attention was drawn to the plight of French civilians during the Franco-Prussian War, not only the starving population of Paris (the siege continued until the French surrender in March 1871), but also in the French countryside either under German occupation or filled with refugees in flight from the war. On 5 December 1870, a voluntary committee of women and men met with the French consul in Boston to hold "a fair in aid of sufferers from the war in France." The first meeting of the Executive Committee of the Fair was held in January 1871 and plans were put in place to hold the large-scale event in April, leaving only ten weeks for the preparations. As with many philanthropic activities, almost all the officers of the committee were men and almost all of the actual work was undertaken by women. Committee members were able, however, to draw upon extensive experience gained during the American Civil War in hosting "sanitary fairs" (often held on behalf of the United States Sanitary Commission—an organization that aided sick and wounded soldiers and their families). The Fair for Relief of Suffering in France was held from 11-22 April 1871 in the Boston Theatre, the interior of which was laid out with more than fifty tables where items could be purchased, and art, artifacts, and autographs were on display, all leading up to the main stage where scenery represented a Parisian boulevard. Patrick S. Gilmore, the celebrated bandleader and composer, provided music. "Newspaper boys" (the young children of fair mangers) sold copies of Susan Hale's newspaper that could be mailed from a temporary post office set up at the fair. There even was a "restaurant" where visitors could dine on foie gras—or baked beans.

    The Balloon Post

    The final report of the executive committee of the fundraising effort pointed to the Balloon Post as a "marked feature of the fair" commanding "a respect hardly, hitherto, due to any fair newspaper." There were only six issues of the "B.-P.," but they represented an extraordinary effort on the part of the anonymous "conductor" of the "balloon"—Susan Hale. In a remarkable campaign of carefully-orchestrated flattery, flimflammery worthy of a con artist, and abject cajoling, she persuaded literary lights (Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bret Harte) and aspiring ones (the first publication of Henry James's play Still Waters) to contribute to her ephemeral enterprise. At the same time, she had sister "Luc" write a series of "delicious imitations" of other authors to add to the mix. There even was a "war correspondent," Mary F. Curtis. Hale published long extracts of Curtis's letters from Versailles, the headquarters in turn of the besieging Prussian forces, and then during the Commune, French national forces.

    Although the Balloon Post appeared for only a few days, Hale convinced artist William Morris Hunt to design the pictorial masthead for her paper and with his drawing in hand, persuaded James R. Osgood, of Fields and Osgood, to have it cut for her by Andrew V. S. Anthony, Osgood's chief engraver. Meanwhile, she turned to Charles Chase, a veteran reporter from the Hale family's Boston Daily Advertiser days, who had become the publisher of the Worcester Evening Gazette for his expert assistance. Chase came to Boston by train every morning to see to the production of each number of the Post.

    Hale's brief editorship of the Balloon Post was not without conflict. Boston Latin School students thought that publication of the paper should have been left to them and were first refused and then appeased. The Paris Commune, which was nearing its climax as the fair took place, made the politics of the fair potentially complicated and divisive. The Balloon Post navigated a fine line between sympathy for impoverished refugees in the French countryside and abhorrence for the red revolution underway in Paris. Her attempts to reassure her readers and the publication of nostalgic descriptions of pre-war Paris led to accusations that she was an "Imperialist" (that she favored the return to power of Louis Napoleon and his supporters).

    After the Fair

    The Paris Commune came to a bloody climax a month after the Fair for Relief of Suffering in France ended, but the sponsoring committee had been successful in raising a large sum (about $75,000 after expenses) and carefully supervising its distribution. While the Balloon Post earned almost nothing after expenses, it provided wide publicity for the fair and became something of a souvenir of the brief-lived event. Susan Hale came to public notice and was rewarded with a handsome offer of $1,000 a year to write for "the Tranny"—the Boston Transcript—the city's most "literary" newspaper.

    Over time, Susan Hale became best known as an artist, art teacher and lecturer, rather than as a writer, although she maintained a reputation of being something of an expert in preparing "charity fair" publications. She travelled widely and continued her lively and humorous correspondence with friends and family members. She and her brother, Rev. Edward Everett Hale, wrote a shelf of children's books (that she helped illustrate) based, in part, upon her own wide-ranging travels (although not by balloon) beginning in 1881 with A Family Flight through France, Germany, Norway, and Switzerland. Ill health and growing deafness finally slowed "Susie" down in old age, but as a young friend wrote—in a description that could have been used to describe the challenges of editing the Balloon Post—"her sense of humor and her pluck carried her through very trying times." She died in 1910.

    Further Reading

    Boston Theatre. Boston Theatre: French Fair. The Most Elegant and Attractive Fair Ever Held in Boston. Open Daily until April 22 ... Full Band of Music Every Evening .... Boston: F. A. Searle, 1871.

    French Relief Fund. Report of the Executive Committee of the Fair for Relief of Suffering in France. Boston: Press of Rand, Avery, & Co., 1872.

    Hale, Susan. Letters of Susan Hale. Ed. by Caroline P. Atkinson. Boston: Marshall Jones Company, 1919.

    Hale Family Papers. Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Mass.

    Susan Hale's personal papers form part of a large collection of Hale family papers in the Sophia Smith Collection of primary sources in women's history at Smith College. 

    Viaux Family Papers, 1870-1958. Massachusetts Historical Society.

    The papers of the Viaux family include Frederic H. Viaux's manuscript records as secretary of the 1871 Fair for Relief of Suffering in France. Much of the Society's collection of printed ephemera: tickets, broadsides, menus, newspaper clippings—even a floorplan for the fair booths—came to the MHS as part of the Viaux Papers. 

    Other fair-related printed items can be found in ABIGAIL, the MHS online catalog, by searching for "Fair for Relief of Suffering in France".