Plenty of legroom on the Pan American World Airways' Clipper.

America by Air Exhibit at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, in Washington, DC

When my sister was hired as a stewardess by the Polish Airlines LOT back in the 1980s, before she flew anywhere she had to attend trainings not only about airplane layout and duties and responsibilities of her job, but also complete a training on proper make up and behavior.

That’s why I stopped when I saw a big sign asking “Could You Be a Stewardess in the Early 1950s?” while wandering around the huge Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

"Could You Be a Stewardess in the Early 1950s?" display, part of the America by Air Exhibit at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
“Could You Be a Stewardess in the Early 1950s?” display, part of the America by Air Exhibit at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

The blue squares with requirements for height, weight, age, and so on spelled out the strict requirements for stewardesses back in the 1950s:

  • Height must have been between 5’2″ and 5’6″
  • Weight must have been under 135lbs, and it wasn’t until 1979, the exhibit informs, that court cases forced the airlines to change their weight policies
  • Preferred age was between 21 and 26, and up to 1968 once stewardesses reached between 30 and 35 they had to resign.
  • Only unmarried, not divorced, separated, or widowed women were hired. Married women were accepted as stewardesses starting with 1969.
  • The first African American stewardesses were hired in 1958. Before that, all stewardesses were white.
  • The first male stewards or flight attendants were hired in 1971. Before that, the stewardesses were entirely female.
  • Required education included two years of college or registered nurse status.
  • Other required “qualifications” included “Plenty of Personality and Poise” and of course, “Attractive.”

The sign above is part of the America by Air exhibit, located on the first floor of the museum otherwise dominated by impressive rockets, missiles, and airplanes.

There, underneath the forward fuselage of Boeing 747 you can also see around 30 uniforms of flight captains and stewardesses, from the United Airlines’ grey and demure suits of the 1940s to bold and colorful designer uniforms commissioned by Braniff Airways and Air California in the 1960s.

Eastern Airlines Captain uniform of the 1940s, and United Airlines Flight Attendant uniform of the 1946
Eastern Airlines Captain uniform of the 1940s, and United Airlines Flight Attendant uniform of the 1946

 

On the left, Braniff Airways stewardess uniform of 1965 designed by Emilio Pucci, in the middle Air California's stewardess uniform of the 1960s
On the left, Braniff Airways stewardess uniform of 1965 designed by Emilio Pucci, in the middle Air California’s stewardess uniform of the 1960s

If you’re interested in the history of commercial aviation, but can’t go to Washington, DC, you can browse through the extensive online exhibit of “America by Air” where you can read about preparing the uniforms for the exhibit on the “Commercial Flight Uniforms: On Display and in Good Hands” page of the “Behind the Scenes” section.

(Apparently, since many uniforms were donated by former captains and flight attendants, the mannequins displaying them had to be custom made to fit the uniform, not the other way around.)

While you’re browsing the website, take a moment to play the “Airline Ticket Price Meter” which explains how, depending on your options, your ticket might cost from $160 to over $1600 depending on what options you choose.

One option that I found particularly true when it comes to ticket price is flying to or from a different airport, especially during school breaks. That is why we had driven to the JFK airport in NYC in the past, since even with paying for the two-week economy parking the price of four tickets was around $500 less than flying from the closest airport – Boston’s Logan.

If you do get to see the “real” exhibit in Washington, DC, try not to get jealous of all the legroom on the Pan American Airways’ Clipper of the 1930s you can see below and in the featured image.

Inside the cabin of Pan American Airways' Clipper
Inside the cabin of Pan American Airways’ Clipper

1940s $278 overnight to Hawaii is equal to over $4,500 in today’s dollars, so in those days all passengers paid “business class” prices. There were no cheap flights.

Nowadays you can get a Business or First Class round trip flight from BOS to HNL for less than that, and if you don’t mind being cramped for a few hours, the economy class is around $800 last time I checked. Still not exactly cheap, but more do-able than $4,500.

More on the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

The DC part of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is located on the Independence Avenue at 6th Street SW, and is open daily except December 25, from 10:00 am till 5:30 pm.

The closest Metro stations are the L’Enfant Plaza (where Blue, Green, Orange, Silver and Yellow lines stop) and the Federal Center (where Blue, Orange, and Silver lines stop).

As at all Smithsonian museums in DC, admission is free of charge.

Where to Stay in D.C.?

When we visited D.C. we did not stay in Washington, D.C. proper. We got two very nice connected one-bedroom suites at the Wyndham Old Town Alexandria (review coming up). It was just a short walk to the subway that takes you to the Mall where all the museums are.

Should you want to stay in D.C. proper, there are of course plenty of hotels and apartments to choose from. Take your pick!

Shout Out to #WeekendWanderlust and #TheWeeklyPostcard

#WeekendWanderlust, hosted by Chris & Heather (A Brit and a Southerner), Carmen (Carmen’s Luxury Travels), Jessi & Tara (Outbound Adventurer), Ashley (A Southern Gypsy) and Lauren (Justin Plus Lauren), is a collaborative effort to share travel blog posts, and to discuss all travel-related things!

#WeekendWanderlust logo
#WeekendWanderlust logo

#TheWeeklyPostcard, run by Travel Notes and Beyond, is another place where travel bloggers can share their most recent posts, and read other travelers’ stories.

Travel Notes & Beyond

 

You can read a lot of interesting stories on those blogs!

12 thoughts on “America by Air Exhibit at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, in Washington, DC”

  1. Hi Jolanta, I was reading your post with great interest. It’s amazing how airline business has changed through the decades. I love imagining those times when air travel was simply glamourous and there was no such thing as economy class and no one was fighting over an elbow room. Ahh, what a sweet time for travel. But I can’t imagine those very restrictive requirements for flight attendants. I’m glad though that flying today is more open and more acccessible to everyone. Thanks for sharing this exhibit.
    Marisol@TravelingSolemates recently posted…The Mysterious Statues (Moai) of Easter IslandMy Profile

    1. Thank you for reading, Marisol! Those days sure look glamorous, but air travel was restricted to much fewer people because of the costs. I’m glad you liked this post.

  2. Great post! I would have to agree air travel have changed quite a bit over the years. I remember when you would have to get dressed up just to fly in first class. My mother-in-law was one of the first flight attendants to work at National Airlines back in the thirties. Only the wealthy and high ranking officials were the only ones that could afford to fly. How times have changed.. Thanks for sharing and linking up this week. :-)
    Carmen | Carmen’s Luxury Travel recently posted…Waterfront Dining in Fort LauderdaleMy Profile

    1. Thank you for reading, Carmen! I try to dress down for travel nowadays, because I know invariably something will get spilled :) Not proud of it, but unfortunately I sometimes look like a total slob by the time we get to our destination.

  3. Thanks for sharing your visit to this exhibition! I found those requirements so interesting – and it’s really not that long ago! It’s so crazy that women had to resign at the young age of 30-35! Wow! I’ve always thought that flight attendants have such hard jobs, dealing with cranky people (I really don’t know many people who actually enjoy flying!). But this opened my eyes to how hard is used to be to get such a job!
    Sara @ Simply Sara Travel recently posted…An Introduction to Polish CuisineMy Profile

    1. Thank you for reading, Sara! Yes, it’s amazing that so much has changed in so little time, less than a century in fact. We take so many things for granted now, but have to remember it wasn’t always that way.

    1. Thanks for reading, Sarah! Yes, thirty, forty years ago seems like a completely different world, doesn’t it?

  4. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is one of the most interesting museums that we visited in Washington DC. But I have to say it’s expensive to get in. Some of the requirements stewardesses are still in effect today (like the weight). They have protested against this many times, but truth is that if they gain too much weight they can’t fit properly in the aisle.
    Anda recently posted…The Winter Charm of NiceMy Profile

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