Snapshot: 1930, the first female flight attendants

20 Mar 2017 by Valerian Ho
The eight original

The position of airline cabin attendant was not a woman’s job in the early years of commercial aviation. In 1922, Britain’s Daimler Airway hired the first  “cabin boys”, who served no refreshments but whose presence added a comfortable formality to a flight. For a while this continued, as few people believed women were suitable for work in aviation.

In 1930, however, a registered nurse named Ellen Church persuaded Steve Stimpson, manager of Boeing Air Transport (the predecessor to United Airlines), to hire female flight attendants, believing that a girl with training as a nurse would do a better job looking after passengers on a plane. Including Church, eight nurses were hired and the “sky girls” were paid US$125 a month to fly a minimum of 100 hours.

Their initial flight was on a Boeing 80A from Oakland to Chicago, serving 14 passengers on a 20-hour flight. The stewardesses had to do a host of things before, during and after the flight. Before take-off, they adjusted the clocks and altimeters in the cabin, swept the floor, dusted the windowsills and helped carry buckets of fuel to the plane. During the journey, they handed out chewing gum, blankets, ammonia capsules, and slippers on night flights.

Other duties included making sure passengers did not consume alcohol, put their arms or head out of the aircraft, or throw anything including lit cigarettes from the windows. They even cleaned passengers’ shoes, and carried railroad timetables to assist passenger connections. When the flight was over, they would help push the plane into the hanger before going home.

Steve Stimpson and Ellen Church at a 35th anniversary event

Passenger traffic surged for three months after the sky girls were introduced, with some businessmen even making reservations to fly with specific stewardesses. Stimpson soon hired 20 more female flight attendants, and within a year most major US airlines had also started hiring women to serve passengers on their planes.

Boeing had very strict hiring policies for female cabin crew at that time. Applicants had to be under 25, no more than 5 feet 4 inches (1.6 metres) tall and weigh no more than 115 pounds (52kg). They also had to be registered nurses… and unmarried.

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