Vintage Transportation | Commercial Aviation
Feb 27, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Vintage airline posters are some of my favorite examples of commercial graphic design. The bold, colorful interpretations of far-off places are not only beautiful to look at, but they envelop and even inspire us. These posters speak to our inner explorer and challenge us to see the world through fresh eyes. But how did our ancient love affair with expeditions transition from land and sea to the great blue sky? Commercial aviation officially began in 1908 when the Wright brothers invited an employee to join them in the air. The excitement around that first communal airborne experience was tremendous. A mere fifteen years later, transcontinental travel – by air – was a reality. Suddenly exotic corners of the world were accessible (assuming you had the financial capacity to afford the early ticket prices!). While modern advancements in air travel have ushered in a new golden age, I’d like to chat about the original peak of commercial aviation – the years immediately following WWII.
As we’ve discussed before, optimism was at an all-time high following the war. People were rebuilding their lives – working, starting families, and traveling. The burgeoning American middle class was establishing a relatively new idea: the Summer vacation. In previous generations, a vacation was an activity reserved for only the most elite person. If the purpose wasn’t to “take in the season” somewhere fabulous, it was to restore their health. (Fresh, sea air was a well-prescribed remedy back in the day.) For the working class during this time life revolved around church, family, and work. The work week was six days long and on the seventh day you rested and practiced your faith. As this idea of leisure gained momentum, the enhanced transportation options were there to support this concept of “getting away from it all” (an idea which had become very popular given the new fast-paced working environment found in bustling city centers).
In 1958 Pan American Airlines debuted its New York to London route – connecting two great world centers via the Boeing 707. This plane is often billed as the first jet airliner and its design was based on the Dash 80, a military-grade aircraft used during the war. While its roots were military, its legacy is all commercial. Its iconic design and popularity made the Jet Age possible. To put it in perspective, 1958 was the first year that more trans-Atlantic travelers made the journey by air than by sea. The development of the Boeing 747 in 1969 cemented the upward trajectory of the Jet Age and opened up air travel to the masses.
Read more about one of my favorite terminals here!
More and more people were taking to the skies, but what defined the mid-century traveling experience? In a word – luxury. The cost for tickets alone was a splurge (getting from the US to Europe one-way would cost about $3k in today’s money!). But once you had a point of entry, you were ushered into a very spectacular environment. The menu read like a five-star restaurant: prime rib and lobster for starters. The wine flowed freely and you were served by helpful, cheerful stewardesses. Travel wasn’t just getting from point A to point B, it was theater. People dressed the part, wearing their finest dresses, suits, and generally exuding elegance. Seats reclined fully, leg room was ample, and all manner of comforts were available: full-sized pillows, blankets, cigars, etc. Flying back then, while much more expensive, time-consuming (and louder!), focused on premium customer service. The limits of technology at this time meant that flying took much longer than it does now, but what you sacrificed in time you made up for in quality of experience. Pampered: a word I don’t associate with my modern travels, but looking at the posh pictures of yesteryear exude that very adjective.
As commercial aviation has become part of our modern social vocabulary, it’s easy to take it for granted. But in the first golden age of air travel, passengers were handed postcards upon boarding – a special reminder to memorialize this unique experience. Rather than plugging in headsets and powering up your tablet, standard in-flight protocol was to write postcards to your loved ones. A lovely tradition in my opinion and I encourage you, as you take to the sky, to preserve some of this wonder. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that the mere thought of traveling somewhere across the sea (for fun!) was unheard of for the average person. Now we can all be intrepid explorers in our own right, so how will you commemorate your next journey?