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Monday, September 29, 2014

Travel In The Fifties

Author, Sandra K. Marshall worked for an airline before she became a published author.   

She's going to tell you about traveling by air in the 50's even though she didn't fly for the first time until 1962; the year she graduated from high school.  Before that she traveled vicariously by reading books set in different locations, and she wanted to visit all of those places.

All of her published books have been set in the state of Missouri where she lives now.  Some day she'll write stories set in the exotic countries she's visited.

Back in the 50s, flying was magical and marvelous. Air travel exploded into its Golden Age, and airplane trips weren't just a means of getting to your vacation -- they were a vacation in themselves. Passengers dressed in their finest to fly. They lined up for group photos before boarding. Riding an airplane made them feel like a movie star because it pretty much took the salary of a movie star to do so.  But not everything was so rosy. If you took a flight in the 1950s...  Turbulence could snap your neck.

Early commercial planes were powered with pistons, not jet engines. As a result, they were loud, vibrated fiercely, bumped like crazy in turbulence and were grounded often due to weather (things got smoother after the first commercial jet debuted in 1952). In the 50s, pressurized airplane cabins were relatively new to the scene. And a non-stop flight? Not likely -- getting across the country could require multiple layovers.

You had insane amounts of legroom.  
Coach seats had three to six inches more legroom than they do today -- 1950s economy class looked more like business class does now. And first class was clearly about as spacious as a modern hotel room.

Your flight attendant wore a girdle and had a weight limit.

Flying was an over-the-top luxury experience, and leggy, chatty "hostesses" were part of the show. Some airline's required hostesses wear high heels at all times -- only after takeoff could she switch to flatter shoes. Hair had to be short enough so as not to touch her collar. A flight attendant manual mandated that stewardesses be single, stay under 125 pounds, and maintain "high moral standards" during employment.

You paid up to five percent of your salary for a ticket.

In the 50s, a flight from Chicago to Phoenix cost $138 round-trip -- that's $1,168 when adjusted for today's inflation. A one-way to Rome would set you back more than $3,000 in today's dollars.

Lobster counted as airplane food.

These were coach meals.
With commercial plane travel a new market, airlines struggled to one-up each other by offering the fanciest meals. One vintage ad lists TWA's "full meal" to be served in-flight: soup, meat, salad, vegetables and dessert. Real glassware and roast beef were typical sights.

Smoking was totally acceptable... and for much longer than you'd think.  (this is the one thing I wouldn't like).

During the 1950s, smoking (of cigarettes, pipes and cigars) was totally acceptable in the air, but strangely not in the terminal (they were afraid cigarettes might ignite the fuel fumes). "Confusion and resentment" ran rampant when a law prohibited smoking on short domestic flights decades later, in 1988. It wasn't until 2000 that a law mandated all flights to and from the U.S. be smoke-free.

You were handed a postcard as you boarded.

Flying was so utterly rare that passengers felt compelled to document every moment on postcards with pictures of the plane or in-flight meal, to show their less lucky loved ones what the newfangled experience was like.

"The tradition at the time was that you would use your in-flight time to write people you knew on the ground, describing your flight," historian Guillaume de Syon explained.

You drank (LOTS) for free.  (We did this in the 60's and 70's, too.)

Alcohol was another popular form of in-flight entertainment: passengers were served as much free alcohol as they could drink, and it was not uncommon to come off a flight totally hammered.

Of course, the free boozing tapered off as air travel became less of a luxury industry and more of a commercial one. But in those early Golden Days, people just poured themselves scotch after scotch.

You didn't show ID.

Even as late as 1970, passengers made it onto planes without ID of any sort -- a quick look-over from security did the trick. Showing up at the airport 30 minutes before your flight was totally fine, and well-wishers could walk right up to your gate where you boarded via stairs, not jet bridge. Passenger screenings wouldn't become mandatory until 1973.

Baggage claim was even more excruciating than it is now.

In the early 50s, you'd wait for a skycap to organize everyone's luggage on a counter. One by one, passengers pointed to their suitcases, paid him a tip and collected their bags. Thank heavens for the first conveyor belts!

A lot of this information came from Geoff Alcock's article - Flying Used to be Magical & Marvelous...  Okay, folks, Mr. Alcock may think flying in the fifties was fantastic, but I think flying in the sixties was really luxurious.


Rose Anderson said...

Fascinating! How about those pull out beds? Great post, Sandy.

Cara Marsi said...

Love this! What a change from what flying is today. I flew for the first time in 1965 on a trip to Europe with my parents and aunts. We women wore dresses, stockings and heels to fly. And we had meals and lots of leg room like you said. It was special to fly in those days. Now, people wear sweats and PJ's to fly. In 2000, I flew to Las Vegas with my son and husband. We were so late leaving for the airport and so rushed that my husband forgot his wallet. When we checked into the airport he had no ID. The person checking us in looked over my son and me and decided we were okay so he let my husband on the plane with no ID. Can you imagine doing that now?

Tina Donahue said...

Wow - those pictures make you want to go back to that time. Actual food. Leg room. A pleasant journey. Flying is such a hassle now and so freaking uncomfortable, I'd rather drive. Great post, Sandy. :)

Sandy said...

Thank you, Rose. I thought it was interesting, too.

Cara, there's no way you'll get on a plane today without ID. Terrorism has taken a toll on air travel.

Thank you, Tina. I'm with you when it comes to driving rather than fly these days.

Judy Baker said...

Wow! I didn't know any of this info and since I just returned from a vacation back east and flew home, I can tell you I wished I had the leg room they had in the 50s. Great post.

Sandy said...

Thank you, Judy. I'm glad you liked it.

Paris said...

Thanks for the wonderful info! Flying is so much different these days. Most of the time, I'd rather drive:)

Melissa Keir said...

I remember thinking about how glamorous flying was in the 80's. I never flew on a plane until I was married. My family couldn't afford those splurges. We also didn't take vacations, but that was just a part of not being rich...

Sandy said...

Paris, I'm with you I would rather drive.

Sandy said...

Melissa, we weren't rich either. No one in my family flew until I went to work for the airline.

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