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The Best Books on Aviation History | Five Books Expert Recommendations
From histories of the flight attendant profession it would be easy to come away with the notion that America's first flight attendant was a woman. Many accounts describe how a savvy Iowa nurse, Ellen Church, approached executives at Boeing Air Transport the predecessor of United Airlines in and prevailed on them to usher in a new female member of their flight crews who would keep passengers comfortable and assist them in emergencies.
Far fewer accounts mention that such jobs actually existed before Church and that men, not women, held them. Pan Am's inaugural flight between Key West and Havana on January 16, , could be just as immortalized in flight attendant histories as Church's first flight over two years later. An artist's rendering of the flight shows the airline's very first flight attendant, a nineteen-year-old Cuban American named Amaury Sanchez, standing in his black-and-white uniform and greeting passengers as they board the Fokker F-7 plane.
While a few other men served before him, Sanchez was the first U. Over time, however, Ellen Church's hiring has been remembered and Sanchez's almost entirely forgotten. After all, the more familiar understanding of the profession as female dominated begins with Church.
Labor historian Kathleen Barry has correctly noted that the flight attendant career "took permanent shape in the s as 'women's work. She did so and a profession was started.
Rickenbacker confessed yesterday he is simmering in a nice kettle of fish," the reporter noted, "because he proposes to install flight stewards or, if you prefer, male 'hostesses' on Eastern Air Lines planes. Rickenbacker withstood these attacks, and significant numbers of men continued to take the job. In fact, Eastern maintained a male-only corps of flight attendants up until the labor shortage of World War II, and Pan Am did the same, from the time of Sanchez's hiring until Thanks to these two airlines, men during the s constituted around one-third of flight attendants.
Thus, compared to the female-dominated fields of nursing or typing, where women in the s held over 95 percent of positions, the flight attendant profession was still an extensively gender-integrated space.
But these publicly disparaged "male hostesses" were clearly flying into cultural headwinds. As all-white or light-skinned Latino men performing servile work customarily reserved for women or men of color, they elicited deep anxieties surrounding the evolution of gender and sexuality norms in Jim Crow America.
It is anachronistic to speak of a "gay" flight attendant corps that endured "homophobia" in the s. In those years, unlike the postwar years, homosexuality was a barely choate identity category. It found expression mainly in scientific tomes as a sexual pathology and in a rather limited urban nightlife that grew up alongside the other illicit pleasures of Prohibition-era America. In addition, explicit sources such as memoirs or corporate records on homosexuality in the steward corps do not exist, which means I have no ability to assess stewards' actual sexual behaviors and attitudes.
To speak of "homophobia" is also, therefore, problematic. In fact, even if stewards' sexual identities were known, it would be enormously difficult to discern when they experienced discrimination based on sexuality rather than gender. As these men walked the tenuous cultural line identified by Barry-and, more polemically, the Washington Post -that sought to cleanly divide male and female realms, we know they experienced discrimination that belittled these men as women.
This cultural response is easily construed as homophobic, and I do, in fact, use the term in this manner. Yet such discrimination actually depended on the culture's sexism that rigidly restricted male and female social roles.
Similarly, the fact that the African American men performing the same servile tasks as Pullman porters on trains never elicited derision as "male hostesses" shows that such epithets depended on America's racism as well. My primary focus in this chapter is stewards' unconventional gender performance in the s.
I especially scrutinize remnant public relations materials, assessing the degree that stewards were portrayed as either appropriately masculine or deficiently so. I also examine what links may have existed between the steward's public image and the nascent gay homosexual subculture of the s. The first half of this chapter examines the steward within his socioeconomic milieu, as an employee designed to appeal to the white, wealthy, cosmopolitan urban dwellers who made up the lion's share of air travelers in the s.
These customers, who were predominantly men, had already acclimated themselves to what I call the "gay"-in quotation marks-lifestyle that arose in the Prohibition era, where opulence comingled with illegality and sexual adventure. While this social scene was not "gay" in a sense synonymous with "homosexual," participants did embrace a softer version of masculinity that emphasized the pursuit of libidinal pleasure, and some homosexual encounters were tolerated, even if only a fraction of men chose to engage in them.
While the steward could not aspire to participate fully in this eccentric lifestyle because of his working-class status, he was groomed by Pan Am's and Eastern's public relations departments to cater to this softer upper-class masculinity. In this sense, stewards of the day belonged-at least aesthetically, from an examination of their uniforms and other public relations materials-to the more fluid gender and sexuality norms that typified the "gay" life of the urban elite. The second half of the chapter examines the first stirrings of homophobia in the sense of a virulent sexism directed at the steward.
Interestingly, more than just external observers like the Washington Post journalist belittled stewards for their inadequate masculinity. Eastern's and Pan Am's own public relations materials betrayed a degree of apprehension that at times surpassed the Post 's.
This section examines both an Eastern article on a steward's "diaper drama" changing a baby's diaper in flight and a violently demeaning comic published by Pan Am in their respective in-flight magazines. As indicated by the discomfort that even their employers displayed, stewards of the s had undertaken a troubling social role, even if they were spared the more explicit homophobia of the postwar moment.
The chapter also details how technology played a vital role in casting the steward as a social outcast. Here my work relies heavily on previous historians, who have begun to stress the "mutual shaping" that occurs between technological and social innovation.
In terms of gender, historians now realize that "the boundaries between how people designated male are expected to behave and how people designated female are expected to behave are sometimes redefined, negotiated, or violated" by technology.
Regarding flight attendants, I add one important element to Kathleen Barry's work stressing the feminization of the career in the s: I show how new technology, when coupled with the culture's sexism, helped render stewards ever more queer as the decade progressed. The release in of the two most advanced pre-World War II aircraft-the DC-3, heralded as the first modern passenger aircraft, and the Pan American Clipper, the largest passenger plane to date-played a particularly important role in defining stewards as unmanly.
These innovations allowed the airlines for the first time to credibly domesticate the cabin and assert this realm as decidedly feminine. Airplanes were now safe and comfortable, thereby permitting an influx of new female passengers and even children. With his work increasingly devoted to catering to customers as they reclined in spaces more evocative of their own living rooms, the steward seemed increasingly out of place.
Technology was thus central to ostracizing this group of men, opening them to derision as laughable "male hostesses. It was sheer coincidence that the s marked both the rise of commercial aviation and one of the most formative moments for gay male communities.
Yet the location of both these innovations in America's largest cities increased the likelihood that they would become intertwined. As historian George Chauncey points out, the term gay held multiple meanings during this period. When referring to the lifestyle of America's Prohibition-era elites, it connoted flamboyance, awareness of cultural fashion, fun, and transgressions that could be enjoyed by straights and gays alike. It also held strong overtones of illegality, because of patrons' indulgence in alcohol and their dabblings in sexual vice, including renowned Broadway "pansy shows.
In the s and s, however, the term was innocent enough that a morally upstanding person could use it to express her enjoyment of a night out at the theater, but still edgy enough to suggest sexual illicitness. For men in this upper-crust "gay" culture, traditional notions of masculinity were being reworked.
Prohibition-era cosmopolitan men were expected to indulge in customarily feminine activities: they knew how to dress well, manicure themselves, and dance like Fred Astaire. As Chauncey summarizes, these men lived in a "time when the culture of the speakeasies and the s' celebration of affluence and consumption Note that these "gay" developments were affecting heterosexual men at the time, ostensibly having nothing to do with one's sexual object choice.
That said, homosexuals moved in the s and s to appropriate gay as a self-identifier, regardless of their class status.
The more effeminate so-called "fairies" were the first to do so, since they more fully embodied the traits of fashionability, gender transgression, and emotional excess that the term denoted even in the larger culture. Thus, by the early s, at least in major cities like New York, gay maintained two separate but closely related meanings. It was now synonymous with fairy but also retained a nonhomosexual meaning of frivolity, whose potential impact was to increase effeminacy in all men.
The airlines saw an influx of "gay" culture from two different sources. First, the same wealthy patrons of the "gay" nightlife were also the airlines' core customer base, which is hardly surprising given air travel's status as a prohibitively expensive luxury in the s. Only the very rich could afford to pay the significant premium over rail tickets. And only men were expected to be daring enough to fly on airplanes, much less be gainfully employed by the few corporations willing to pay for plane tickets.
In addition to these wealthy cosmopolitan customers, Pan Am hired male flight attendants, who became "gay" icons themselves, because the airline proceeded to ensconce them in the style and opulence expected by the elite men they served. Following the example of other white male service professionals in cities-think of bellhops, doormen, ship stewards, and elevator attendants-Pan Am stewards became fashionable accessories catering to this elite, adorned in military-inspired suits, and changing into white sport coats and gloves when serving meals aboard planes.
Stewards' fashionable dress and access to high-society clientele, even if they didn't share their customers' exalted class status, also probably drew envious attention from some in the "fairy" community.
In his study of early twentieth-century gay erotica, art historian Thomas Waugh notes a particular fascination with men in service-related jobs. He asks rhetorically: "What to make of the recurring iconography of young men in service occupations such as bellhops?
While this later material emphasizes more macho imagery, the prewar items tend to fetishize male softness. Something about a man's servile softness stood out, to many "fairies" at least, as deeply homoerotic.
Ideas about male softness and homoeroticism aside, the work aboard airplanes in commercial aviation's earliest years was a mixture of both notionally masculine and feminine tasks. For this reason, it would be inaccurate to see early stewards as transgressors into a decidedly feminized realm.
Air transport until the mids was quite dangerous and downright unpleasant. One early customer on a twelve-passenger Ford tri-motor plane, one of the first planes large enough to accommodate a flight attendant, confessed: "When the day was over, my bones ached, and my whole nervous system was wearied from the noise, the constant droning of the propellers and exhaust in my face. Vomiting was so prevalent that all passengers were furnished with "burp cups" akin to spittoons.
Facing such unpleasantness while paying a premium over the cost of rail travel, early air passengers surely welcomed the added touch of a flight attendant to cater to their comfort. But airline executives were uncertain whether the hostile environment required a flight attendant with manly fortitude or the comforting touch of a woman. Reflecting how this job rested atop America's gender fault line, the initial flight attendant work descriptions, whether at Pan Am or at airlines like United that hired only women, were more varied than in later years.
All flight attendants were expected to pitch in on notionally manly ground duties. As Inez Keller, an original stewardess at United in , remembers, "We had to carry all of the luggage on board. Some of us had to join bucket brigades to help fuel the airplanes [and] we also helped pilots push planes into hangars. Once everyone was on board, however, the job description was more tied to comforting passengers: after assigning seats, flight attendants passed out packages of cotton for the droning noise and chewing gum for the altitude shifts.
They then served food, which in the earliest years was typically a boxed lunch of cold or steamed chicken. Other than that, as Pan Am's first steward, Amaury Sanchez, noted, "My only instructions were to keep people happy and not too scared. These service-oriented tasks drew far more attention from the airlines' public relations departments than flight attendants' safety roles or physically demanding work. This was especially true of the stewardesses, all of whom were required to have a nursing certificate to better prepare them to assist in emergencies.
Yet any focus on nursing skills reinforced just how dangerous even routine air trips could be. Public relations departments therefore preferred to highlight stewardesses' regard for passengers and their sexual availability. With an assist from Hollywood's first of many stewardess movies, Air Hostess, in , female flight attendants became associated with comfort and sexuality. The film's advertising poster contained the provocative moniker, "She went up in the air for romance and thrills While Air Hostess marked the beginning of America's decades-long and well-publicized heterosexual love affair with stewardesses, the flip side of this erotic fascination has so far remained undocumented: starting in , stewards also were marketed as alluring sex objects.
The fictitious public relations persona known as "Rodney the Smiling Steward" became the most famous male steward of the s. The Rodney marketing campaign involved placing hundreds of life-sized, full-color cutouts of the steward in train stations and travel agencies all along the East Coast and as far west as Chicago.
The goal of the promotion was the same as most airline marketing strategies through the s: to lure the wealthy clientele of train and ship lines to Pan Am's international air routes. But the use of a male steward as the company's publicity ambassador would never again be replicated at Pan Am until after the s, reflecting just how unique the steward's moment of visibility was.