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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Preserving a Spectacle: The 1909 Grande Semaine d’Aviation de la Champagne

Last week, archivists from the DC area celebrated American Archives Month with the 2017 Archives Fair. Taking advantage of the theme of “Performance and Preservation,” the National Air and Space Museum Archives tapped materials from our numerous collections on air shows, the ultimate aerial performance spectacle. And what better air show to highlight than the first true international air meet—the Grande Semaine d'Aviation de la Champagne, August 22-29, 1909?!

The Grande Semaine took place on the plains of Betheny near Reims, France. Contestants included some of the top flyers in the world:

· Louis Bleriot (first to fly the English Channel)
· Glenn Curtiss (member of the Aerial Experiement Association, leader of group of demonstration pilots)
· Hubert Latham (first to attempt to fly the English Channel)
· Henri Farman (first cross-country flight in Europe).

(Interestingly, the Wright brothers had been asked by the Aero Club of America to represent the United States at this meet, but declined the invitation. Curtiss attended for the United States.)

Poster for the Grande Semaine d'Aviation de la Champagne, August 22-29, 1909, Reims, France. NASM 93-654.
How does one preserve a spectacle such as the Grande Semaine? While some motion picture film exists of the event, most of the material we have are photographs. But we also have ephemera, such as programs, entry forms, rule booklets, and maps, in our collections. From these documents, we can try to recreate what it was like to be a spectator in 1909 Reims!

View of the grandstand with the buffet area in the foreground.  NASM 78-11939.
Five hundred thousand spectators witnessed the air meet in person over the eight days of competition. Famous attendees included Armand Fallières, the President of France, and David Lloyd George (British Chancellor of the Exchequer and future Prime Minister).

The President of the Republic of France, Clément Armand Fallières (1841-1931), standing in the grandstand at the Grande Semaine d'Aviation de la Champagne.  NASM 00139389.
Aviators needed to complete a “Formule d'Engagement” [Commitment Form] to enter the meet. Once there, entrants needed to comply with the “Règlements” in the rules booklet.

Blank "Formule d'Engagement" [Commitment Form] for entry into the "Semaine Aéronautique de la Champagne."  NASM 9A13989

Front cover of the rule booklet (32 pages) issued by the Comité d'Aviation de la Champagne for the Grande Semaine d'Aviation de la Champagne.  NASM 9A13988.

Spectators throughout Reims could keep track of the action in many ways. Signs on the streets of Reims indicated wind speed and the probability of flying. A signal mast on the course showed the places of race contestants. Onlookers could use the program to read the symbols.

Passersby on a street in Reims, France examine a sign indicating wind speed and and the probability of flying during the Grande Semaine d'Aviation de la Champagne.  NASM 00139388.
Signal mast showing the places of race contestants on the left, judges stand at right. NASM 00139387.
Page 9 of the event program provides a guide to reading the signal mast.  NASM 89-19709-12.

Event photos were mass-produced immediately into postcards. Spectators could purchase and mail postcards featuring the previous day’s action right from the post office onsite!
Front view of crowded stand (boutique) selling books and post cards during the Grande Semaine d'Aviation de la Champagne.  A banner advertises postcards of the previous day's flights.  NASM 00139414.

Postcard featuring Sánchez Besa No.1, with an inset photo of pilot Henri Péquet.  NASM 00085717

Balloonist Edgar Mix served as a judge for the Grande Semaine He was also an amateur photographer. The NASM Archives have his stereograph collection and with the help of a stereoscope viewer, all of the action of Reims can be brought to life in 3-D!!

Stereograph image by Edgar Mix.  Roger Sommer’s Farman in flight, August 26, 1909.  NASM Mix-93-15

Aviation enthusiasts in the United States could follow the action through daily newspaper updates. America’s own Glenn Curtiss won the premier event—the first ever Gordon Bennett Trophy (for the fastest 2 laps of a 10 km circuit)—just edging out Frenchman Louis Bleriot. In October 1909, the excitement of France was brought directly to Americans when Philadelphia department store Wanamaker’s celebrated Glenn Curtiss’s victory with a display of a replica of his award-winning Reims Racer.

Brochure issued by John Wanamaker promoting the display of the Curtiss-Herring No.1 "Reims Racer" at his flagship department store in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, October 1909.  NASM 9A13990-01.
The 1909 Grande Semaine d'Aviation de la Champagne was just the first of many international air shows in the past century. Many of these are represented in the collections at the National Air and Space Museum Archives. Has your area ever held an air show? How has it been documented?!

Elizabeth Borja
Reference Services Archivist
National Air and Space Museum Archives

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