In the collection of the Smithsonian Institution is a yellowed envelope whose three-cent stamp was cancelled in Lafayette, Indiana on August 16, 1859.
Addressed to a New York City resident, the envelope bears an intriguing inscription in the lower left corner: “Via Balloon Jupiter.”
The artifact survives from the first-ever postal delivery by air.
The date of the world’s first airmail preceding the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk by more than four decades, one might quickly surmise that the flying machine in question was not a plane.
The Lafayette postmaster took a leap of faith when he gave balloonist John Wise a locked mailbag containing 123 letters and a few pamphlets, addressed to postal patrons in New York.
The postmaster’s faith in Wise, a former piano builder, may have been tenuous. Only weeks earlier, the aeronaut’s previous attempt to deliver letters from St. Louis to New York had ended in a crash just shy of the destination. Although the 809-mile trip was the longest balloon trip on record, the mail was lost, and the prospect of airmail still unrealized.
The day Wise finally pulled off the historic feat was a scorcher in Lafayette, with little wind; but a crowd estimated at 20,000 gathered to see Wise off in his “Jupiter”.
Wise had to ascend to 14,000 feet to ride the currents, which ultimately dragged him south instead of east. After five hours in the air, Wise was forced to make a premature landing just 30 miles south in Crawfordsville (and was hence ribbed by the Lafayette Daily Courier for his “trans-county-nental” flight).
This time, however, the mailbag was safely retrieved from the gondola, and the letters dispatched by train to their destination.
“Dear Sir,” read W.H. Munn upon receiving Mary Wells’ elaborately conveyed letter, “thinking you would be pleased to hear of my improved health I embrace the opportunity of sending you a line in this new and novel way of sending letters in a balloon.”
A seven-cent stamp bearing the image of the Jupiter was issued at the Lafayette post office on the centennial of Wise’s flight. A Jupiter II balloon reenacted the lift-off and a helicopter, representing modern airmail, carried letters from Lafayette to Purdue.