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Up, Up, and Away with 19th Century Science Books for Children

Today’s guest post is by Jacqueline Coleburn and Anthony Mullan. Jackie is a rare book cataloger at the Library of Congress and is cataloging the Library’s rare children’s books.  Peter Parley books are a particular interest of hers. These books, which were very popular in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s, offer insight into the evolution of American children’s literature, and can tell the modern reader a great deal about American attitudes and thought. Anthony Mullan is a volunteer who was formerly a reference specialist in the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. One of his current interests is 19th century American geographic education. Check out their other Peter Parley blog posts – Peter Parley Explains the Moon, Part 1 and Part 2.  Peter Parley and his Pictures: the First Illustration of Dinosaurs for American Children.

Peter Parley’s Tales about the Sun, Moon, and Stars, 1842, frontispiece.

One image appears again and again in Samuel G. Goodrich’s early 19th century science books for children: gravity-defying balloon travel.  His discussions of geography, history, and physics benefit from images of this technology, both as an imaginary vantage point from which to study the geography and people below, and to explain the physics involved in keeping a balloon aloft.  Goodrich (1793-1860) uses the name Peter Parley and Robert Merry as pseudonyms to teach science to children.

By the time Goodrich was entertaining his young readers with images of balloon flight, interest in the technology had shifted from dreams of practical applications to pure entertainment and thoughts of adventure.  The first crewed hydrogen balloon lifted off from the Tuilleries Garden in Paris on December 1, 1783, carrying J.A.C. Charles and Aine Robert in its wicker basket.  The balloon stayed aloft for two hours and traveled twenty-seven miles.  Their design for gas-filled gores of rubberized silk within a balloon set the standard for the technology for many decades to come.

Because balloons are at the mercy of wind currents for both speed and direction, plans for their uses for human transportation were, in time, all but abandoned.  Outside of atmospheric experiments and military observations, lighter-than-air travel stayed in the realm of entertainment.

And entertain it did.  Thousands of people would turn out for the spectacle of a colorful balloon taking off and floating above a crowd.  Thoughts of human flight and soaring above cities and towns filled imaginations and many books for children.

Balloon Travels of Robert Merry and His Young Friends over Various Countries in Europe, 1855, half title page.

Goodrich captures the imaginations of his readers with his tales of taking five youngsters for a trip in a balloon over Europe to teach them geography and history.  In the preface to Balloon Travels of Robert Merry and His Young Friends over Various Countries in Europe (New York, 1855), Goodrich declares, “The purpose of this volume, is to entertain and instruct the reader by carrying him, in imagination, with a party of adventurers in a balloon, over the most interesting portions of Europe … It is an easy mode of traveling – that of gliding along in the air.”

The voyagers looking down upon the Giant’s Causeway. Balloon Travels of Robert Merry and His Young Friends over Various Countries in Europe, 1855, page 25.

Goodrich uses this illustration of the northern coast of Ireland to teach geography of the area.  He answers the children’s questions about the inhabitants of Ireland with stereotypes popular at the time. “The Irish people in early times were a fanciful race, and fond of tales and legends …” He peppers his lessons with casual conversation and instructions to the children about air travel, “take care while I let out the gas.  See, how we descend! How beautiful the land looks … Look out there! Bang! Here we are …”

The Adventurers Looking at the Ruins of the Forum at Rome. Balloon Travels of Robert Merry and His Young Friends over Various Countries in Europe, 1855, page 189.

Also in Balloon Travels of Robert Merry and His Young Friends … we see the travelers step out of the balloon’s basket to visit the Forum, “the very center of splendor in ancient Rome.”   Goodrich also uses the visit to Rome to display his severely (and not atypical 19th century American) anti-Catholic views.  One of his young travel companions declares, “It astonishes me to see them believe that they can save their souls by kissing the toe of a marble image in Saint Peter’s … I am ready to quit Rome.”

Pneumatics; or, the Mechanical Properties of Air. A Glance at the Physical Sciences, or, The Wonders of Nature, in Earth, Air, and Sky, 1844, page 120.

In this section on pneumatics in A Glance at the Physical Sciences, or, The Wonders of Nature, in Earth, Air, and Sky (Philadelphia, 1844), Goodrich explains on page 130, probably to an older audience, some of the physics involved in 19th century air travel. “[By] bringing a red-hot iron under one of the scales of a balance; the balance is instantly made to ascend; for as soon as the iron is brought under the scale, the hot air, being lighter than that which is colder, moves upward, strikes the scale, and elevates it. Upon this simple principle depends the whole theory of aerostation.”

In his enthusiastic manner and occasionally breathless tone, Goodrich uses the awe-inspiring, gravity-defying new technologies of his day to keep his young readers engaged and turning the pages to learn more about the world around them.

To learn more about early aeronautics and balloon flight, check out the Tissandier Collection.

3 Comments

  1. Sherry L.
    June 22, 2020 at 2:08 pm

    Thank you for this fascinating post! We will be sharing it with teachers who will, in turn, be sharing with their students. Literally, a wonder-ful entry!

  2. Ellen A.
    June 28, 2020 at 8:43 am

    I’m very glad that Peter Parley invited girls along on this trip. He *was* an advanced soul, wasn’t he. How would I see the entire book? – Thank you.

  3. Nate Smith
    July 1, 2020 at 9:59 am

    Hi, Ellen! You can view the book in its entirety by going to the HathiTrust Digital Library website and searching for “balloon travels of Robert Merry.”

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