#FlightyFridays – The Celebrity of Alberto Santos-Dumont

This Friday, prompted by Alberto Santos-Dumont's birthday, I decided to start sharing some of my research on Twitter through a new feature: #FlightyFridays. The gist is that I'd offer readers some interesting images with some short commentary to contextualize what they're seeing. I've decided to also expand #FlightyFridays into a blog, which I hope will serve as a more permanent record. Remember, if you'd like to see a larger version of the image, just click on it! 

Alberto Santos-Dumont was born on July 20, 1873, in Brazil. Although most Brazilians would disagree, Santos-Dumont did not invent the airplane. Nor was he the first to fly one. Where Santos-Dumont did excel was in lighter-than-air flight. His Parisian ascents aboard balloons and dirigibles were critical in popularizing the idea of a world permeated by flight in a time where people were still very skeptical of its possibility.

La Vie au grand air, 19 June 1903 (Gallica, BNF).

"Le petit Santos," as Parisians affectionately called him, skillfully worked with the press to become the first global aeronaut celebrity. Huge crowds gathered to watch his flights, and the mass illustrated, which was just coming to its own, eagerly depicted these events on its pages. The cover of the sports periodical La Vie au grand air shows a crowd gathering around Santos-Dumont after he landed on of his dirigibles in Longchamp.


La Vie au grand air, 8 December, 1901 (Gallica, BNF).

Santos-Dumont's fame was such that during a 1901 toy contest, the most popular toys were based on his dirigibles. La Vie au grand air provided its readers with a photo of the numerous toys at display in the 1901 Concours Lepine's "Santos-Dumont corner."

Author’s collection.

Santos-Dumont's aircrafts and image also stamped all types of advertisements, like this Will’s Cigarettes trading card, which I snagged at a marché aux puces in Paris. As such, the commodification of Santos-Dumont anticipated Lindbergh Fever by a couple of decades, and set the tone for the ways in which aviators would be made into celebrities in the following years.

Santos-Dumont's fame reached its peak in late 1901, when he won the Deutsch Prize offered to the first person to take off from the Aéro-Club de France's park in Saint-Cloud, circle around the Eiffel Tower, and return within a strict time limit. There was controversy as to whether he succeeded, but popular pressure forced the Aéro-Club to grant him the prize. The feat not only made Santos-Dumont "the hero of the hour," it also helped solidify Paris's status as the global capital of aeronautics. After all, the event also made the connection between aviation and the Eiffel Tower real (it is worth noting that the tower had been pitched as a kind of aeronautical laboratory when it was proposed in the late 1880s). Photos of Santos-Dumont going around the Eiffel Tower circulated the world, and one was even used by Eiffel in a book he published to defend the tower’s utility

In short, the way the press covered Santos-Dumont's feats helped crystalize Paris's global image as a spectacular center of technological cosmopolitanism—as the "capital of modernity." This illustration from the New York Herald, a newspaper that followed Santos-Dumont closely and helped spread his fame in the United States and amongst elites in Europe, conveys this in a wonderful fashion.

New York Herald, 24 June 1900 (Firestone Library, Princeton University).