Happy Chinese New Year! To celebrate the Year of the Monkey we wanted to share one special monkey from our collection. Maggie, a stuffed spider monkey, has an especially interesting story. She was a part of the U.S. Army’s attempt to become the first to circumnavigate the world by airplane in 1924. Unwilling to hand over this first to the U.S., five other countries— Great Britain, Italy, France, Portugal and Argentina —set the same goal. And the race was on!
Four Douglas World Cruisers, each with a pilot and a mechanic, set off from Seattle and traveled West on April 6. Each airplane was named for an American city—Chicago, Seattle, New Orleans, and Boston. The World Fliers, as they would become known, traveled extremely light; only two changes of clothes! But their supply lists included stuffed spider monkeys weighing two pounds each.
Why a stuffed animal? Before the eight aviators began their trip, they attended a ball and reception at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The hotel manager removed eight stuffed monkeys from atop imitation palm trees and gave them to the aviators as a mascot. He offered to pay $50 for each monkey that was returned safely. Maggie, who is now safely displayed in our Pioneers of Flight gallery, was taken on board the Boston with pilot Leigh Wade.
There was no guarantee that the flights would be successful. There were many challenges including extreme weather, limited landing fields, small fuel tanks, and unfamiliar cultures. The World Fliers encountered a variety of animals on their adventure. They spotted whales in Alaskan waters, commented on shaggy-haired horses in Japan, and saw elephants at work in teak yards near Rangoon, Burma. In present-day Vietnam, they were surrounded by curious crocodiles while stranded in a lagoon, hiked through tiger country, and were amused by water buffalo. In India, they were surprised that monkeys were as common as birds in the U.S., and that cows roamed the streets. In the Middle East they were amused by the prevalence of camels.
In the end only two of the four airplanes made it around the world. The Seattle crashed into a mountain in Alaska and the Boston sank in the North Sea. Since Maggie traveled aboard the Boston, she was clearly saved from a watery end. While only two airplanes completed the trip, all of the eight Fliers survived and the people of the United States showered them with adulation. The United States won the race and claimed the honor of the first around the world trip by airplane.
Two questions remain: We know what happened to Maggie, but what about the other monkeys? Do all the stuffed monkeys still exist today? Did the Fliers ever claim their $50 reward from the hotel manager? If only Maggie could talk. If you think you know what happened to all eight spider monkeys let us know in the comments.
If you’d like to learn more about the first trip around the world, I recently wrote a book for children ages 10 to 14 (First Flight Around the World). It’s filled with 115 photos from our Archives and is based on the journal of First Lt. Leslie Arnold. You can also try your own luck at flying a Douglas World Cruiser in our online interactive!
Tim Grove is chief of Museum Learning at the National Air and Space Museum