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This essay explores the ballooning craze in Britain in the 1780s as an expression of the energies and anxieties that characterized Britain's consumer revolution. Ballooning was a subject of endless commentary, but critics' mixed responses to its enormous popularity epitomized the tensions between the century's dominant narratives of progress and decline. For some, ballooning was a promising example of the pursuit of knowledge; for others, it was symptomatic of the effeminacy of a modern commercial society. The lesson enforced by "the balloonomania," as Horace Walpole called it, was that in a modern commercial society, it was often too hard to maintain these distinctions. This ambivalence reverberated throughout a subtler set of categorical confusions that manifested themselves in a nervous awareness of the often threatening proximity of intellectual seriousness and personal frivolity, scientific pursuits and fashionable distractions.