The first airline stewardesses were all nurses and were called the Sky Girls.
The Sky Girls
Airlines weren’t interested in women pilots in 1930. Ellen Church, qualified pilot and nurse, was determined to get into the skies somehow. She pestered Stephen Stimpson, the manager at Boeing Air Transport (predecessor of United Airlines), with her idea of hiring nurses as airline stewardesses.
Stimpson had been thinking of hiring young Filipino men as “cabin boys”. Until Ellen Church convinced him to hire herself and her 7 hand-picked Sky Girls.
In a memo to his boss Stimpson wrote: “Imagine the national publicity we could get from it and the tremendous effect it would have on the travelling public. Also imagine the value they would have to us, not only in the neater and nicer method of serving food but in looking out for the passengers’ welfare.”
The reply was a curt, one-word reply: “No!” Boeing were concerned that “girls” would interfere with discipline on a plane; pilots scorned “flying nursemaids”. Nevertheless, Stimpson and Church persisted and eventually were granted a three month trial.
After the trial period, the carrier hired 20 more women, and by 1933, it employed more than 50.
Their jobs were more grit than glamour. Those swirling capes were designed for pockets to hold a spanner and a screwdriver to secure the passengers’ wicker chairs to the floor of the cabin.
The Sky Girls’ tasks included:
sweeping and dusting cabins
bolting in seats
helping to refuel planes
rolling planes into hangars
restraining passengers from throwing cigarette butts out open windows
keeping passengers from swiping “souvenirs”
watching to make sure no-one mistook the exit for the lavatory
In addition, they were expected to entertain bored and frankly terrified customers.
When Delta first hired female flight attendants in 1940, it asked for “Eight Hostesses: Can you qualify?…Prefer Poise, Personality, Pulchritude.” Not only qualified nurses, they also had to be “knowledgeable about current affairs [and to] carry on an intelligent conversation.” Keeping up with baseball, notably the Atlanta Crackers, was a plus for job applicants!
But most of all, Airline hostesses had to be attractive, as described in a 1936 New York Times article:
“The girls who qualify for hostesses must be petite; weight 100 to 118 pounds; height 5 feet to 5 feet 4 inches; age 20 to 26 years. Add to that the rigid physical examination each must undergo four times every year, and you are assured of the bloom that goes with perfect health.”
And they must be single. (Apparently, during the initial trial the husband of the one stewardess would persistently telephone and pester Stimpson whenever his wife’s flight was delayed and she was late coming home.)
Some airlines required Sky Girls to sign an agreement not to get married for 18 months. And, naturally, they had to resign when they got married.
Don’t use the lavatories
Airlines weren’t so much in competition with each other in the 1930’s – their big rival was the railroad. The railroad offered security, safety, and comfort, and similar travel times. Airlines even mimicked the railcar in their cabin layout.
For all the airlines did to suggest otherwise, flying was still a risky business. If today’s airline passengers were subject to 1929 air crash rates, seven thousand of them would die every year in the United States alone.
Sky girls carried rail timetables with them in case a plane was grounded. In this case, they were expected to accompany the inconvenienced passenger to the nearest station.
British Airways Empire Class planes in the 1930s came equipped with three fancy flying lavatories, but those in the knew understood that it was better to avoid using them.
Oxygen tank-assisted breathing was common. And sudden drops of altitude in unpressurized planes could rupture one’s eardrums.
Luckily, air sickness bowls were available under each seat.
Stewardesses sometimes left behind
if the plane was too heavy, stewardesses were left behind. Mail was the priority.
At United, Airline stewardesses weren’t allowed to mix with pilots or passengers while off-duty. At Delta, pilots and stewardesses stayed in separate hotels, when on a layover. Despite all of these constraints, one of United’s original workers, Inez Keller, remembers that pilot’s wives were suspicious:
Co-pilots, happy to be freed from hosting duties, were more welcoming.
These Sky Girls became an icon in Depression era America, where they were better paid than nurses, teachers, or secretaries.
A whole new genre of novels appeared about bold young women who found liberation in the skies (and love, of course).
If you enjoyed this, you might like reading about the days when airplanes had beds.
Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants By Kathleen Barry