People have wondered for centuries what the Earth looks like from the air above. Before modern aviation, people attempted to take aerial photographs by sending cameras aloft by balloon, kite and even strapped to pigeons.
In 1858, a Frenchman known as Nadar captured the first photographs taken from the air. From his tethered balloon, he made photos of his home city of Paris. Two years later, James W. Black ascended in a balloon over Boston Commons to make the first aerial photographs in America. Arthur Batut, another Frenchman, succeeded in making photographs from a camera strapped to a kite in 1888. Kite photos caught on for a short time and were occasionally published as postcards in the early 1900s.
The co-evolution of photography and aviation soon led to what is known as the aerial photograph. The Wright Brothers made history in 1903 with their flight at Kitty Hawk, but it was another five years before the first photograph was taken from an airplane. With Wilbur Wright piloting the plane, L.P. Bonvillain shot a photo through the wings of the plane over Le Mans, France, and published it in a French aviation magazine in 1908.
Aerial photography got a boost in World War I when the military used aerial survey cameras aboard airplanes to obtain photographic records of terrain, roads, bridges and railways, as well as troop movement. Newspapers and magazines embraced aerial photographs, and the public was captivated.
The public’s interest in aviation accelerated in the 1920s and exploded when Charles Lindbergh made his famous solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. Barnstormers toured the country entertaining crowds at air shows with their aerial acrobatics in the 1920s and 1930s.
Postcard companies capitalized on that public interest in aerial photography in the 1920s and the decades that followed. National postcard publishers like Curt Teich, Tichnor and Kropp all published “aeroplane views.” They were readily purchased as souvenirs. Michigan scenery and interesting buildings like the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island were captured from the air. Images of tourist towns like Saugatuck and Charlevoix might show the outline of a harbor, lake, river or resort. Postcard images were then used as promotional pieces to show the growth and prosperity of a city.
While most of these early aeroplane and aerial views of Michigan do not credit the photographer, we have seen a few credited to the Abrams Aerial Survey Corporation of Lansing. Talbert “Ted” Abrams formed the company in 1923. He pioneered new ways to survey the landscape from the air and mapped the route for U.S. 27 through the swamps near Houghton Lake. Between 1935-52, he made aerial photographs of some 86 Michigan towns and other places like Isle Royale. His work is now preserved at the Archives of Michigan in Lansing. Interest in airborne views continued to grow when aerial view postcards from all over Michigan were published in the 1950s and ’60s.
As postcard collectors, we are as fascinated by the “aeroplane” views era as the postcard buyers must have been years ago. Seeing Michigan from an airplane today, we are still thrilled to identify lakes and geographic features, which earthbound people once could only do from a photograph or postcard. With drone photographs being commonplace today, it’s hard to imagine how exciting it must have been for our predecessors to see beyond the limitations of their land-based viewpoint, to see the Earth as the eagle saw it. ≈
BLUE Vintage Views columnists M. Christine Byron and Thomas R. Wilson reside in Grand Rapids. They are authors of the book “Historic Leelanau: Recognized Sites and Places of Historical Significance.” Find additional titles at the Cottage Book Shop.
*Photography courtesy Vintage Views