Friday, May 11, 2012

Mainliner Stewardesses

One of the unique aspects of collecting snapshots is the almost innocent, unpretentious glimpses it gives us into the daily lives of the people who took them. With the explosion in air travel during the 1930s and 1940s, not only did the nation and world become smaller for passengers, it became an "adventure" for the people who crewed the airliners. I've no idea who the unnamed "me" is from these photos, but with her friend Ruth, the stewardess pictured clearly is excited by her job as a United Airlines Mainliner Stewardess.

In 1936, United airlines had become the first carrier to hire a female flight attendant, a 25-year old named Ellen Church. Up to that point, the role had been exclusively a male one, with the job title typically "purser" or "steward", from the rail and ocean liner traditions. United envisioned giving its passengers an extra measure of service by requiring its cabin staff to be registered nurses, and feminizing the male title, they became "stewardesses". The nurse requirement was dropped during WWII, as nurses were strongly encouraged to lend their talents to the war effort.

A United magazine ad encouraging young women to become stewardesses, published just a few years after these photos were taken, used the draw of visiting glamorous places and meeting new people: "Imagine the challenge of being part of a team with other young and attractive people working in aviation, using your talents to help passengers enjoy their flight with United. Imagine the excitement, too, of having time off to see the sights in new cities! It's an important career for travel-loving people! To qualify you must be...between 20 and 26 years of age, single 5' 2" to 5' 8" with weight proportionate to your height. When you are accepted, you will have 5 weeks training, a pair of wings and then attractive pay and expense allowances."

By the time that these photos were taken, the DC-3 had been in the fleet for a long time, since United had first started taking delivery of the DC-3s in 1936. When they started their service, they were a revolution in the air, but by 1950, the rapid development of aviation technology - and airliner comfort standard - meant that they were supplanted by bigger, faster, and longer range post-war aircraft designs such as the The DC-4 and -6, the Boeing Stratocruiser and the Lockheed Constellation.

The "Mainliner" tag reflects United's advertising emphasis that they were the first truly trans-continental airline, (in the words of a 1947 magazine ad that featured the DC-3) the "Main Line airway of the nation", and (in another from 1950) "The Nation's No. 1 Coast-to-coast Airline," This label was applied directly to the DC-3 as a model name, with a brochure of that day describing the plane as "The DC-3 Mainliner". In the early days of United's DC-3 operations, in fact, "Mainliner" was the main title on the airplane, rather than "United Airlines". Exactly when the "180" was appended to the name is a bit more clouded, but this 1943 article from the Eugene, Ore Register-Guardian gives a hint with the mention of the "modern" airliner's speed of 180 miles per hour, as opposed to the expected faster DC-4.

In an interesting afternote, when I was doing research for this post, I came across an on-line offering of a vintage model kit for the United DC-3 Mainliner from a whopping $3,500!

The Douglas DC-4 Mainliner (detail crop below)
Even before the first DC-3 flew, however, United and several other airlines were talking with Douglas about a larger, four-engine airliner which could haul double the passengers. The prototype was very large, and after United tried it out, they realized that the costs would prove uneconomical. Douglas down-sized the plane somewhat resulting in the production version of the DC-4, but WWII interrupted plans to put it in service. After the war, United started flying them as the "Mainliner 230", reflecting their greater speeds; the DC-4 reduced the transcontinental flight time to 16 hours (including a stop in Chicago).

In the 1943 newspaper article linked above, the writer referred to the promise of the increased performance of the planned DC-4 operations, and noted "If it had not been for the war, today it [United] would be operating over its system 44 passengers and cargo four-engined 5,000-horsepower transports...[having] a cruising speed of 250 miles per hour."

1 comment:

  1. Another interesting post, especially the reference to the oft-forgotten DC-4E. I suspect the Mainliner name grows out of the railroads' use of the term mainline to describe the significant arteries, which always operated at the maximum speed. The term main line was so strong that a whole string of suburbs of Philadelphia are still called the Main Line, alluding to their development along the route of the Pennsylvania Railroad.