Friday, July 20, 2012

Mini-Dress Balloon Fail

As a card-carrying dress wearer, of course I was intrigued by a lecture called "The Silk Dress Balloon."

Part of the Museum of the Confederacy's brown bag lunch series, the topic was handled by Bryce VanStavern with facts and humor ("Welcome to the Museum of the Confederacy's brown bag lunch series," he said. "There are some good smelling lunches in here").

Call me ignorant, but I hadn't known that hot air balloons were used during the Civil War, much less that they dated back to 1783.

The idea was apparently foreign to people back then, too, with one 1783 observer asking, "What good is it?" after seeing one demonstrated.

"What good is a newborn baby?" responded the always pithy Ben Franklin.

VanStavern told us about early balloon efforts and the military's distinct lack of enthusiasm for their usefulness.

Part of that indifference may have been the problems inherent in them.

Trying to get a balloon up in the air 1,000 feet to get it out of firing range of the enemy's gunshots could not have been easy or pleasant.

Not surprisingly, the area just above the tree line was referred to as the "danger zone."

What was even more surprising was that not a single balloon got shot down during the war.

After hearing about various predecessors, we finally got to the infamous silk dress balloon only to learn that it wasn't made of dresses at all.

I'm not gonna lie; it was a bit of a buzz kill.

Turns out it was made with $514 worth of dress silk, which represented all the maker could find in a fabric store at the time.

As even I recall from history lessons, shopping options were rather limited during the war.

With only so much fabric, the balloon was much smaller than normal and probably named "The Gazelle" for its lithesome figure.

But with its heavy fabric and use of coal gas (the Confederacy had no hydrogen), it could only stay aloft for a pitiful three or four hours instead of the usual several days.

Still, they managed to use it for reconnaissance during the Seven Days Battle, so it wasn't a complete loss.

Somewhat pathetically, the Gazelle ended up mounted on a tugboat, only to be captured when a Union boat sent cannon fire its way and the men jumped ship.

The Gazelle had flown for a brief eleven days, not exactly an illustrious career for a balloon, even way back then.

But it lived on because Union troops labeled it a "silk dress balloon" and cut it into pieces to be passed around along with the legend of it.

150 years later, there's a piece of it in the Smithsonian.

I was blown away to find that the only other known piece was in the room with us for today's lecture.

I'll be honest; it wasn't too impressive, faded as it was.

But VanStavern showed an image of it with its original colors recreated digitally and no doubt about it, it sure had been pretty.

So while it hadn't actually been made with dress donations off the backs of devoted Confederate women, it was still an awfully unique balloon.

Probably not as unique as if I tried to make a balloon out of my dress collection, but then given the "danger zone" length of my dresses, the resulting balloon would end up looking like a toy balloon even next to the under-sized Gazelle.

Good thing I don't have to sacrifice for the cause.

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