The small document reproduced here will win no prizes for beauty or elegance, nor even eloquence. It is stained and faded — barely legible, in fact. Nevertheless, it represents a historic “first.” What we’re seeing is arguably the first piece of air mail ever delivered.
It is a letter (more accurately, a 3×5″ card) written by Dr. John Jeffries of Boston to Mr. Arodie Thayer and dropped from a balloon over England on November 30, 1784. It was dropped with three other similar letters, two of which were reported to have reached their addressees; however, our item is the only one known to have survived to the present day. It was given to the College by Thatcher Thayer (Class of 1831), a nephew of Arodie Thayer. This letter is the centerpiece of the Jeffries Air-Mail Letter Collection.
The message on the letter is difficult to decipher, but it appears to read as follows:
From the Balloon above the Clouds
Let this afford some proof, my dear Mr. Thayer, that no separation shall make me unmindful of you, — have confidence, — happier, I hope much happier days await you — pray tell my dear Mrs T. I salute her from the Skies… [section illegible except for the word “pleasure”]… believe me as I ever have been,
Additional writing appears below the signature, but it is so faint that it is impossible to know whether it is a post-script or a later addition.
And what caused the writing on the card to become so barely decipherable? Analysis at the National Archives in 1951 concluded that the note was written with some sort of berry ink (possibly pokeberry), which was commonly used in the 18th century but which is known to fade relatively rapidly; also, that some unknown person, at a later date, attempted to trace over some of the words using pencil, and not always correctly (discrepancies can be seen between the pencil writing and some of the underlying ink).
John Jeffries (1744-1819) was a Boston physician and Harvard graduate who had a keen interest in not only medicine but also meteorology. Combined with this was a fascination, widely shared, with the new endeavor sometimes referred to as “levitation,” or hot air ballooning. His balloon ascent of November 30, 1784, undertaken with the French aeronautic pioneer Jean-Pierre Blanchard, reportedly attained an altitude of over 9,000 feet, a record at the time. This was only one year after the Montgolfier brothers in France had successfully engineered a manned ascent in a tethered balloon.
Jeffries’ and Blanchard’s flight in England, as well as a second, much more celebrated, flight from Dover Castle across the English Channel into France, were chronicled in the book A Narrative of the Two Aerial Voyages of Doctor Jeffries with Mons. Blanchard; With Meteorological Observations and Remarks… (London, 1786). Our copy in Archives & Special Collections is an indispensable accompaniment to the Jeffries Air Mail Letter Collection.
Purists might disqualify the Jeffries letter as genuine “air mail,” since it didn’t bear a stamp. We will leave that debate to the philatelists. One thing beyond dispute is that our document, homely as it may be, represents a significant piece of aeronautic history.