This month marks 80 years of female flight attendants. It’s hard to imagine a time without them, but until 1930, airlines employed male stewards. That changed when Ellen Church, a nurse from Iowa, approached Steve Simpson at Boeing Air Transport (later United Airlines) with the radical idea of putting women nurses on airliners. Church had wanted to be a pilot, but realized that she had no chance for that in the climate of the day. She convinced Simpson that the presence of female employees might help relieve the public’s fear of flying. Church developed the job description and training program for the first class of eight stewardesses, called the “original eight.”
Upon completion of the class, Church worked the Oakland to Chicago route. She served only eighteen months when an automobile accident grounded her. After her recovery she returned to nursing, and her stint as a stewardess was over. However, her idea transformed the airline industry. Did you know that the first stewardesses were required to have nursing experience? Qualifications for flight attendants have changed a lot over the years. At one time airlines required stewardesses to have an appearance “just below Hollywood standards.” Today, some would argue that the glamor is gone. What do you think?
Try out this fun online checklist and see if you could have qualified to be a flight attendant in the early 1950s.
To explore more about the history of commercial aviation, check out our online version of the exhibition America by Air.
“There is still a newness about air travel, and, though statistics demonstrate its safety, the psychological effect of having a girl on board is enormous.”
- Comment about the addition of stewardesses from an airline magazine, 1935
Tim Grove is Chief of Education at the National Air and Space Museum’s Mall building.