Of American-English origin, the phrase lead balloon denotes a failure, an unsuccessful venture. It is especially used of suggestions, jokes, etc., made in public.
The image is of a balloon made of lead plummeting to the ground.
—Cf. also the phrase like the man who fell out of the balloon, not in it.
The image of a lead balloon not becoming airborne occurs in Pop’s Final Deposit, a Mom ’n Pop comic strip by the U.S. cartoonist and commercial artist Loron A. Taylor (1899?-1932), published in several U.S. newspapers on Friday 6th June 1924—for example in The Bay City Times Tribune (Bay City, Michigan):
– WHOZIS TALKIN’?—STOCK EXCHANGE? Y’ SAY CONSOLIDATED MOTHBALL JUMPED TO ONE FIFTY A SHARE? HULLY GEE!—AN’ I SOLD 520 SHARES YESTERDAY. I THOUGHT IT WAS BLOOEY—
– BETTER BUY IT BACK WE EXPECT IT TO GO TO TWO BUCKS BY NOON—
– ALL RIGHT—I WILL—
– HE FELL FOR IT. EDDIE—GET THE STOCK OUT OF THE SAFE AND LOOK SOBER
– SAY FREDDIE—THE TELEPHONE IS A WONDERFUL THING. YOU DON’T HAVE TO LOOK A GUY IN THE FACE WHEN YOU TALK TO HIM.
– HAW-HAW. THOSE BIRDS ARE EASY LETTING ME HAVE THIS STOCK BACK AT ONE FIFTY A SHARE—NOW FOR THE STOCK EXCHANGE AND I’LL MAKE A NICE CLEAN UP!!
BUT WHEN POP ARRIVED AT THE STOCK EXCHANGE HE FOUND CONSOLIDATED MOTHBALL WAS ABOUT TO GO UP AS FAST AS A LEAD BALLOON, WHILE THE PESTER BROS ARE CLAPPING THEIR KNEES FOR SECURING POP’S FINAL DEPOSIT ON A TWIN EIGHT 1—
1 This refers to a twin eight-cylinder car engine.
These are, in chronological order, the earliest occurrences of the phrase lead balloon that I have found:
1-: From the column This ’n That, by ‘Mark’, published in The Anniston Star (Anniston, Alabama) of Monday 16th January 1933:
It is possible for every athlete, no matter how good he or she may be to cover just a little too much territory in search of competition. Babe Didrikson, without doubt the greatest female athlete in the world in her line, took a pitiful drubbing at the hands of Ruth McGinnis of Pennsylvania, at the billiard table. The Babe, or her manager, pulled the world’s greatest boner by scheduling the match. The Olympic star, in her second pro appearance, went over just like a lead balloon.
2-: From The Lightweight Champeeen of the World, a guide to men’s summer fashion, by Miles Sheridan, published in the Illustrated Daily News (Los Angeles, California) of Thursday 13th June 1935:
You fellows will have to think up a new gag when you’re broke—the “It’s too hot to go dancing” routine goes over like a lead balloon, now that our women folk know that the summer evening clothes are so cool and comfortable.
3-: From Greenville Gridders Are Held to 6-6 Tie By Dayton Fairmont Eleven, published in the Greenville Daily Advocate (Greenville, Ohio) of Saturday 12th October 1935:
After scoring in the first quarter and then playing listless football during the remaining frames of the game, Greenville High School’s grid team suffered a moral defeat last night when Dayton Fairmont’s Dragons eeked [?] out a 6 to 6 tie against the Green Wave in a Miami Valley League encounter at Dayton.
After a week’s training in the art of heaving passes and completing the same, Greenville’s aerial attack dropped like a lead balloon last evening when an alert Fairmont gridiron combination played “heads-up” football and smashed the would-be passing offense.
4-: From Just Once Too Often, a short story by the U.S. author Nelson Slade Bond (1908-2006), published in several U.S. newspapers in 1936 and 1937—for example in the Arizona Republic (Phoenix, Arizona) of Sunday 1st November 1936:
We were having a finance meeting at the fraternity house when Spud Howard busted in looking as if somebody had jerked out his eyeballs and hung them on his lashes. Trippy Gerlaine, who can’t roll a Phoebe if a flea whispers, rattled the bones impatiently.
“O.K.,” he snarled. “There’s a guy on the roof of the Delta Rho house. So what? Let the girls worry! Maybe he’s a roof painter. Scram!”
“Roof painter nothing!” yelped Spud. “Listen—all he’s got on is an old red bathrobe and carpet slippers. And he’s playing a ukulele!”
I took a squint at the roof. A lean, lanky, towhead in a red bathrobe was perched there strumming a uke and singing at the top of his voice. Suddenly I ran chills and fever. I’d seen that form before!
[…] I walked over and hissed at the stranger. “Listen, sap,” I said, “this is Sturge—Sturge Evans. Come down from there!”
“Sturge!” he said. “Well, I’ll be!”
He let loose a big “Yippee!” and jumped on my back. I galloped down the street like an Arabian charger to the Alpha Mu house, took him up to my room and locked the door. He flopped onto my bed and heaved a deep sigh.
“Well, Sturge,” he said, “how did I go over?”
“Just like a lead balloon,” I advised him.
5-: From 50-50 Plan For Dates Hits Snags, about “a new code of manners under which the girl would pay her share of an evening’s expenses”, published in The San Antonio Light (San Antonio, Texas) of Friday 26th November 1937:
Laurence Vetter is a student and an assistant coach at St. Mary’s university. “Girls want equality,” he says, “but not when that means paying their way!”
“The idea will go over like a lead balloon.
“However,” he adds, straightening his bow-tie, “I’m willing to play the gigolo any time!”
6-: From The Franklin Evening Star (Franklin, Indiana) of Wednesday 15th November 1939:
A stranger entering The Star office to inquire who picks the outcome of basketball games would likely get the same reception of a fan asking a Cincinnatian about Ernie Lombardi 2. The inquisitive one would probably be left standing while all others made a hurried dash for the exits. The first week’s guessing went over like a lead balloon. Results:
Games Picked 7—Guessed Right 4—Guessed Wrong 3—Percent .571
2 The U.S. baseball player Ernesto Natali Lombardi (1908-1977) was a catcher for the Cincinnati Reds from 1932 to 1941. On Sunday 8th October 1939, during the fourth game of the World Series against the New York Yankees, he was knocked nearly unconscious from a collision at the plate, and was unfairly scapegoated for his team’s defeat.