The Original Eight: Genesis of the Modern Day Flight Attendant
By Matthew C. Keegan
The following article
serves as a tribute to eight women who were the forerunners of the modern day
flight attendant now numbering nearly 250,000 women and men worldwide.
In 1930, it was the dream of many a young man to marry a Boeing Skygirl. These
“original eight” women were single nurses enticed from their homes with the idea
of marriage to a rich-lonesome business passenger. Ultimately, however, they
played a pivotal role in revolutionizing air travel by ensuring passenger
comfort and through promoting the safety of air travel.
During that time America was in the beginning of an economic depression that
would eventually deepen and spread to effect the entire world. Nevertheless, new
advances in aircraft development continued to be promoted which helped
strengthen the accessibility of air travel to the general public.
The Boeing Company was, at that time, in the enviable position of being both the
manufacturer of the first airliner and the first airline passenger
transportation company providing cabin services. In 1928 Boeing introduced an
airliner designed specifically for passenger comfort and convenience. The Model
80 touted a separate and enclosed flightdeck for the pilots and a spacious cabin
for the passengers. The original model held twelve passengers and was followed
one year later by the larger, 18-passenger, Model 80-A.
THE ORIGINAL EIGHT
Originally, young boys were hired to serve food, beverages, and comfort the
passengers when they became airsick. Soon, however, it was suggested by Ellen
Church, a registered nurse, that women -- specifically nurses -- could work as
stewards. She felt that nurses would be best suited to care for passenger
comfort (and illnesses), promote a female presence to demonstrate the safety of
air travel, and to free up pilots for more important flight duties.
Boeing managers accepted her proposal and on May 15, 1930, eight women were
hired for a three month trial. Thus began the position of “stewardess” the
forerunner of the modern day flight attendant.
WIDE AND VARIED DUTIES
The duties of the original stewardesses went far beyond providing cabin
services. She served as a tour director by pointing out places of interest
including, cities, towns, rivers, mountains, passes, etc. She took tickets,
loaded luggage, fueled the plane, and helped the pilots push the aircraft into
Because of low ceilings and narrow aisles, Boeing mandated that stewardesses be
small in stature with a height limit not to exceed 5’4” and a weight of no more
than 115 lbs.
UNITED REPLACES BOEING
In 1931 Boeing Air Transportation, Inc., merged with three other transportation
companies to form the newly named United Airlines. About that time most of the
“original eight” returned to more conventional lives.
MARGARET ARNOTT INTERVIEWED
In 1996, Clipped Wings historian Vicy Morris Young wrote a tribute to the
original eight which made mention of an earlier interview with Margaret Arnott,
the last surviving member of the heralded group. Just before her death in 1995,
Margaret shared how as she was awaiting hip surgery her doctor brought in a
framed photo from his wife -- who was then flying for American Airlines -- that
she wanted to have Margaret autograph. The doctor's wife found it in an antique
store and it was the only one taken that had all eight women together in
uniform. Laughing aloud, Margaret said, “I never thought I would end up in an
antique store! I notice you asked for the signature before you did my surgery!”
Margaret loved to meet with latter day flight attendants who always asked about
early flying experiences. Known for her sense of humor, she was telling a young
woman onboard a trip about an emergency landing in a muddy corn field. Her
listener asked seriously, “And did they jet you back to Chicago?” A solemn
reply, backed by a mischievous grin was, “Not that day.”
THE ENSUING YEARS
Soon after the introduction of the “original eight” other airlines began to hire
“stewardesses” too. Government regulation of steward(esses) began in 1952 when
the Civil Aeronautics Administration, now known as the Federal Aviation
Administration, passed a resolution requiring all air carrier aircraft with a
capacity of ten or more passengers to provide at least one steward(ess) for
safety reasons. In 1974 the FAA rewrote the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs)
to read, “flight attendant crewmember.” This step was significant in
professionalizing the role of the flight attendant.
No formal government standards exist in the United States to regulate the
Corporate or Business Flight Attendant. Most large corporations and air carriers
employ flight attendants as they recognize the importance of providing
exceptional service from both comfort and safety aspects.
Today’s crop of flight attendants consists of men and women of a multitude of
nationalities working for a variety of commercial, business, and private
companies. Unlike the “original eight” they no longer have to push planes into
hangars, load luggage, or fuel the aircraft. However, thanks to jet travel, they
can be expected to travel longer, higher, and further than their counterparts,
interact cross-culturally, and be equipped to handle any conceivable emergency
situation that may arise. Nearly 75 years after Ellen Church’s idea became a
reality, the benefits of utilizing flight attendants has been enormous. We
salute the “original eight” and all that have followed in their footsteps.
“Original Eight” Tidbits
The “Original Eight” stewardesses were: Ellen Church, Margaret Arnott, Jessie
Carter, Ellis Crawford, Harriet Fry, Alva Johnson, Inez Keller and Cornelia
Ellen Church’s first flight was on May 15, 1930. She flew from San Francisco to
Cheyenne, Wyoming. (Source: www.kwtv.com)
Church was from Cresco, Iowa. In 1959 that city built a new airfield and named
it “Ellen Church Field” (CJJ) in her honor. Source: Iowa State University
extension website: ww.exnet.iastate.edu)
Can you guess how much the first flight attendants were paid in 1930? They
received a salary for the princely sum of $125. per month!
First Stewardess From Cresco, Iowa State University Extension,
Model 80, Boeing Company, WWW.BOEING.COM.
A Special Tribute – The Original Eight Stewardesses, Vicy Morris Young, Clipped
Matt Keegan is
the owner of a successful web design and marketing
company based in North Carolina, USA. He manages several
sites including the Corporate
Flight Attendant Community and