Last Tuesday, June Porter Rittenhouse gave a delightful and often humorous history of “how the career of the airline stewardess began”. (Note to our younger members: stewardesses are now known as flight attendants.)
The idea of putting women in the cabin took flight when a couple of pioneers in commercial aviation concluded that having attendants in the cabin could be psychologically calming, have great advertising benefit and relieve the co-pilot from having to serve food to passengers if he had time and an appetite.
The first flight with a stewardess was 88 years ago, on May 15, 1930. Those early flights took place on Boeing Air Transport Ford Tri-Motor planes, which were used carry mail and up to 10 passengers. Boeing Air was the predecessor of United Airlines. The original eight stewardesses flew the route from San Francisco (actually Oakland) to Chicago, with four round tripping between San Francisco and Cheyenne and the other four on the Chicago to Cheyenne leg. The entire round trip took about 24 hours with 26 stops, largely due to most of the stops being for mail delivery and pick-up.
The original eight were all chosen because they were nurses. The practice of hiring only nurses as stewardesses continued until 1942 when nurses were needed to support the war effort overseas. The monthly pay for the original eight was $125 per month, which was for fly time only. Layovers and ground time were not compensated. One interesting fact was that this group had aprons with inside pockets which included a wrench and screwdriver. These women were required to install and remove the wicker seats, depending on the number of passengers. If there were no passengers, no seats were installed and the crew sat on mail bags.
The name stewardess came about after several iterations, including courier and air maids. Stewardess was chosen as a way of feminizing stewards, which were common on ships. Originally, stewardesses could not exceed 5’4” in height and 115 lbs. (due to the lower ceiling and weight restrictions of the Tri-Motor). Well, that has all changed with larger planes and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, allowing men, minorities and married people to be employed as what we now know as flight attendants.
June Rittenhouse was herself a stewardess for United Airlines in the 1950’s. She is a member of Clipped Wings, United Airline Stewardess Alumnae and Flight Attendants, Inc. She has been the organization’s National Editor of the Clipped Wings’ Quarterly, National Vice President, National President and served as Chairperson of its 1992 National Convention. Clipped Wings works locally and nationally for the developmentally disabled. Its national philanthropic endeavor is to support the International Special Olympic Games.