The 1930s To Today: Flight Attendants Through The Years

The first commercial airline took its maiden flight on January 1, 1914. Tony Jannus was the pilot, taking passengers from St. Petersburg, Florida, to Tampa, Florida. From there, airlines developed each decade to become the air travel experience we know today. The position of flight attendants was added in 1930, and the job has continued to evolve ever since.

At first, flight attendants were there to smile and flirt with the male passengers and weren’t allowed to have husbands or families of their own. Although they went through extensive safety training, flight attendants were still required to wear attractive uniforms to provide the passengers with some eye candy on board.

Wait until you see what Fledging Southwest Airlines required their attendants to wear in 1972!

Ellen Church Was The First Flight Attendant In 1930

Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

Ellen Church has quite the resume: licensed pilot, registered nurse, and flight attendant. In fact, she was the woman who invented the position! In 1930, Church suggested that Boeing Air Transport hire a few extra people to help passengers with their luggage and needs.

Before there were flight attendants, it was the co-pilot who was expected to help with miscellaneous tasks like this. Boeing liked the idea, especially for marketing and branding. Now every airline in the world has flight attendants.

Recruiting For The Job Was Extremely Biased

ullstein bild Dtl./ullstein bild via Getty Images

Nowadays this wouldn’t fly, but back in 1955, airlines were blatantly biased about who they wanted to apply for the job. PSA airlines published an ad in 1969 looking for flight attendants. It read: “Right now PSA, the airline that is famous for its stewardesses, is looking for girls. Yes… girls to fill a cute orange mini-uniform… girls who smile and mean it… girls who give other people a lift.”

That part doesn’t seem so bad. But then the ad continues, “Now if you’re single, 18 1/2 to 26 years old, 5 foot 1 to 5 foot 9, 105 to 135 pounds, have a high school diploma or better- come in for an interview.” They certainly made sure the ‘girls’ fit the bill at the interview, too!

The First African-American Flight Attendant Was Forced To Quit

New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News via Getty Images

There were a lot of requirements (many of which were aspects like height, race, and weight) that eliminated many women from being able to apply for the job. And even after they landed the job, stewardesses had a lot of rules to follow.

Ruth Carol Taylor, pictured here, was the first African-American flight attendant to fly the skies. She filed a complaint against TWA for banning minorities from being hired. Mohawk airlines hired her on in 1958. Unfortunately, she only held the job for six months. She had to quit once she became engaged to be married.

They Had To Take Care Of Kids, But Not Have Any

Wallace Kirkland/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Today we mostly nod to flight attendants for a beverage or a snack, but in the ’40s, flight attendants were expected to wait on the every need of a passenger. This included changing a baby’s diaper, if a guest needed help, as well as watching over the children on the plane.

Airlines had very strict rules for their flight attendants to follow when it came to their own wishes to become a mother, however. At the time, flight attendants were not allowed to be pregnant, or even have children.

The Polio Vaccine Is Distributed For The First Time

Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

After a year of trials, Dr. Jonas Salk finally found a polio vaccine that was effective. Just minutes after he shared the news, the vaccines were urgently onboarded to an American Airlines plane for distribution.

Flight attendant Dora Kline, pictured here, helped with this effort in 1955, which became an important moment in history. Imagine being able to play a role in saving lives while doing your job. This also showed the airlines’ faith in their flight attendants, entrusting them with important tasks.

Exercising Was Part Of The Program

Peter Stackpole/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

It was important to the airlines that their flight attendants be fit and slim, and they did everything to encourage them to stay in good shape. Here’s a photo that was featured in a 1958 issue of LIFE magazineshowing flight attendants learning ‘slimming’ exercise techniques.

The class was part of the curriculum that aspiring flight attendants would need to enroll in at the American Airlines’ college for stewardesses, located outside of Dallas, Texas. The college was the first of its kind to train flight attendants.

Airline Travel Increased, And Women Were Welcomed Aboard

Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

In the 1930s, it took some convincing to allow females to work for commercial airlines. However, the men didn’t have much of a choice, as demand for air travel rapidly increased, resulting in airlines being in desperate need for more staff. Female flight attendants were hired on, and they were fully dedicated to their role.

A flight attendant by the name of Nellie Granger saved two lives when their aircraft crashed in rural Pennsylvania. Granger went to work, searching for a telephone to call for help. After four hours, she found one and contacted TWA. Afterward, she made her way back to the airplane to attend to the passengers while they waited for rescue.

Films Arrive On Airplanes

Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

Flight attendants had a wide range of duties in the ’40s. One of those tasks included setting up the in-flight entertainment for passengers. Here, a Pan Am flight attendant is setting up the film reel to show a feature-length Hollywood film.

Amazingly, in-flight entertainment began in the ’20s, with comedies and newsreels. And by the ’40s, passengers could enjoy an entire feature-length film. But imagine being held responsible for running and changing out the movie reels! There would be a lot of unhappy passengers if something went wrong.

They Learned CPR And Emergency Landing Techniques

Jack Fletcher/National Geographic/Getty Images

While the airlines seemed to be focused more on stewardesses’ appearances than their skill-sets, they did make sure that each person hired was properly trained to react in the event of an emergency. This photo taken from 1956 shows a group of flight attendants in training.

They took classes to learn CPR and emergency-landing exercises. Here they’re practicing blowing up the flotation devices in the event that the plane would land in the water.

The 1960s Introduced New Style

Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

By the 1960s, flight attendants had been flying the friendly skies for over two decades. Their roles of helping passengers feel comfortable, as well as taking care of them in the event of an emergency, were well spelled out. But that didn’t mean that the airlines eliminated the emphasis on their appearance.

The airlines were always interested in keeping up with the best in branding. And in the ’60s, they decided it would be stylish for the women to wear astronaut-inspired head gear that would protect their hairstyles in the elements.

Airlines Hired Professional Designers In The 60s

Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

If you thought the astronaut-inspired head gear was a bit out there, consider these outfits! Designed by elite fashion designer Emilio Pucci in 1966, stewardesses of Braniff International Airlines would wear these loudly patterned outfits with matching hats.

Once other airlines saw the outfits that flight attendants of Braniff were wearing, they decided to contract designers of their own to remain competitive. Christian Lacroix designed uniforms for Air France, Vivienne Westwood was hired for Virgin Airlines, and designer Tracy Reese created the uniforms for United.

Flight Attendants Go On Strike In 1965

Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

It was clear that the flight attendants weren’t treated very fairly. By 1965, those working for airlines were fed up with all of the rules, low pay, and lack of benefits. So they decided to form a union and protest to get what they wanted.

Although the first union was formed in the 1940s, the women didn’t have any leverage to make actual change until the 1964 Civil Rights Act that made discrimination illegal. It may have taken five years, but stewardesses finally were able to get the airlines to eliminate age and marital status requirements.

The Airlines Were Selling More Than Seats

Susan Wood/Getty Images/Getty Images

In 1967, several airlines branded their flight attendants as women at the service of their male customers. United airlines promised, “Every [passenger] gets warmth, friendliness and extra care. And someone may get a wife.”

As mentioned earlier, it was a requirement for flight attendants to be unmarried, with no children. They also encouraged the female stewardesses to be very friendly with the male customers, who made up the majority of the airlines’ customers.

Hot Pants And Go-Go Boots

Photoshot/Getty Images

Today you would be shocked if flight attendants appeared in hot pants and go-go boots while working on an aircraft. But that was the actual uniform for stewardesses in 1972 for Fledging Southwest Airlines.

Many of the women hired by the airlines were excited to travel around the country. Having a career as a flight attendant was an exciting opportunity for the young women, whose alternative jobs were limited. Most women worked as nurses, teachers, or secretaries at the time.

They Were Required To Do A Lot Of Safety Training

Denver Post/Denver Post via Getty Images

Although flight attendants weren’t considered ‘safety professionals’ until 2006 (through a federal licensing program), stewardesses had a vast amount of safety training. Even back in 1974, when this photo was taken, the women were expected to learn CPR, fire safety, and what to do in the event of an emergency landing.

It’s understandable that with all of this training and required skills, flight attendants wanted an increase in pay. They were expected to jump into crisis control mode if something were to happen.

Yes, They Served Lobster

Peter Bischoff/Getty Images

Thinking about airline food doesn’t usually make your stomach growl. For the most part, it’s questionable meat, starchy foods, and some packaged snacks. But that doesn’t mean that airlines couldn’t go above and beyond when it came to serving their high-paying customers.

This photo taken in 1980 shows Swiss pop star Udo Jürgens (in white) watching a flight attendant as she prepares a lobster dinner for passengers. First class sounds like it was worth the extra money!

Emergency Landing Training

Corbis/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Airlines have always taken safety very seriously, and have trained their crew to deal with real-life situations. During training, they made these circumstances as realistic as possible, having flight attendants go through the drill of getting passengers off the plane safely.

This photo from 1986 shows a flight attendant in a training simulator, going through the steps of calming down the passengers and safely deboarding the aircraft. Airlines’ management also made sure that the women remained friendly and attractive while conducting these exercises!

An Unexpected Passenger

Peter Charlesworth

We already mentioned how flight attendants are expected to know how to change a baby’s diaper, and expected to watch over children on the aircraft while their parents relaxed and enjoyed their flight. There’s no way that this flight attendant on the right would have known that she would be taking care of a baby orangutan!

This chimp was traveling to a rehab center in Borneo. The flight attendant came over to help feed the orangutan and even brought over some headphones so that it could listen to music.

A Bigger Job

Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Every duty of a flight attendant comes with a lot of responsibility. It can also become a bigger job, if there are high-profile passengers on board. This photo taken in 1989 shows Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev arriving in Beijing, China.

Escorting him off the aircraft is a flight attendant. Standing next to Gorbachev, she was a part of history as he was photographed walking off of the plane. He was the first Soviet leader to arrive in China since Khrushchev visited in 1959.

Flight Attendants Needed More Skills After 9/11

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

After the 9/11 terrorism attacks, people were wary of flying. It also became apparent around the world that all airlines would need to step up their security in order to prevent a devastating terrorist attack like the one New York City experienced in 2001.

Airlines quickly stepped up to provide their flight attendants with additional training. This photo taken in 2002 shows a Korean air flight crew practicing a drill in the event of a flight disruption where a passenger would need to be detained.