SOUVENIR OF STRATOSPHERE FLIGHT AVAILABLE TO GEOGRAPHIC READERS...so announced the National Geographic Society on Page 308 of the February 1936 issue of the National Geographic Magazine. The announcement went on to state that any member of the Society could obtain, as long as supplies last, a personal memento of the November 11, 1935 historic flight of the Explorer II Balloon.The souvenir, measuring 2 1/4" x 7", was an actual piece of the balloon fabric that soared to the record altitude of 72,395 feet above sea level. "A suitable design and pertinent data concerning the flight" had been printed on each little bookmark. Two months later, the National Geographic Society reported in The Happy Fate of a Stratosphere Balloon, a promotional sent to potential advertisers, that throughout February they had received 2000 requests per day from readers wanting their share of the balloon. By April, they had to impint a "second edition" of swatches.
So how many bookmarks did the NGS produce from the nearly 3 acres of the Explorer II Balloon fabric? In a memorandum dated December 3, 1935, Thomas McKnew (NGS Project Director for the Explorer Balloon flights) provided a "cost involved in preparing 1,200,000 souvenir book marks cut from the fabric of the stratosphere balloon EXPLORER II". The estimated cost for Judd & Detwiler to cut and print the fabric, to print and fold the accompanying letter, and for the NGS to mail 1,018,700 bookmarks, both domestically and internationally, was nearly $18,000. Why was the National Geographic Society willing to cut up the balloon that had just set an altitude record that would stand for 20 years? The first was for promotional reasons. The Society saw this as an opportunity to encourage current members to continue their memberships (whose fees helped support expeditions like the stratosphere flights) and to encourage them to nominate new members. The second reason was to temper the urge (mostly of Captain Albert W. Stevens, the driving force behind the Explorer Balloon flights) to use the balloon for another attempt at a record breaking flight. By all accounts, it was good decision.
I am not sure how many bookmarks were ultimately produced, but considering the numbers above, it is no surprise that these bookmarks can still be easily found today. It seems there are always one or two examples for sale on Ebay.
From a collecting standpoint, every National Geographic collector should own at least one example of the Explorer II Bookmark. Look for one with the original accompanying letter. Usually this will mean that the bookmark is still in its original condition. As with any collectible, condition is important. Look for ones that are wrinkle free and not frayed. It is common for one or both sides of the bookmark to be discolored. The discoloration is the result of the chemical reaction between sunlight and the rubber coating on the cotton fabric used by the Goodyear-Zeppelin Company to construct the balloon. As long as the bookmark is free of damage and the image and lettering is readable, the discoloration should not affect the value.
Bookmarks were provided to Captain Albert W. Stevens and Captain Orvil A. Anderson, the crew of Explorer II. Many of these were signed by the aviators and passed out during their lecture tours in 1936 or given to family and friends. From a collecting standpoint, signed bookmarks usually command a higher price. The most desirable examples are ones signed by both aviators.
The NGS continued to pass out the bookmarks for many years. One example in my collection was mailed to a presumed member in 1948. Accompanying the bookmark was a letter from a member of the Editorial Staff and an 8 x 10 photo of the Explorer II Gondola (provided by the Smithsonian Institute). One serendipitous find was when I purchased a copy of The National Geographic Society - U. S. Army Air Corps Stratosphere Flight of 1935 in the Balloon "Explorer II" Contributed Technical Papers, Stratosphere Series, Number 2 (which will be the topic of a later discussion). Inside were two pristine bookmarks inscribed by Major Orvil A. Anderson, the balloon pilot.
Please see the attached scans of the bookmark, of the accompanying letter, and of the front cover and one page of the promotional piece. I will also do my best to answer any questions concerning the Explorer II Bookmark.
Now it's your turn. Feel free to share your story of how you found your copy of the bookmark.
Next Week's Topic: Other collectible strips of fabric from the Explorer & Explorer II Balloons.