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.
 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.
Have you encountered this object in your research? In your country? What is it called in your language?
Contribute to our knowledge section by sending us the following information using the form at the bottom of this page: