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Ballads and Balloon Ascents: Reconnecting the Popular and the Didactic in 1851


At just after six in the evening on 16 June 1851, a balloon carrying two passengers narrowly avoided crashing into the transept of the Crystal Palace. This near-disastrous balloon ascent was the result of just one of the popular entertainments that sprang up to capitalize on the crowds of visitors to the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in London in 1851. Despite the fact that on this occasion popular entertainment and didactic recreation almost literally collided, histories of the Exhibition have kept the two separate. It is notable that today the Great Exhibition is most often studied through sources such as Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (1852), the Art Journal Illustrated Catalogue (1851), or the Illustrated London News, all aimed at middle-class audiences. However, cheap broadside ballads also commented on the Exhibition and offer alternative perspectives on the event. This paper focuses on these neglected sources and reads them within a broader network of literary and visual sources.

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