How it all began...

Although much has changed in the past 30 years in the world of female flight attendants, the scope of this site deals with the history of stewardesses from the 1930s through the 1970s.

Before commercial air travel, the only airplane passengers beyond pilots or military personnel were brave travelers who hitched rides on small, mail-carrying planes. The pilots were concerned only with flying safely and didn't have time to take care of passengers.

During the 1920s, airplanes got bigger and could accommodate more passengers. Airlines started to hire male stewards and cabin boys to carry luggage, take tickets and reassure nervous passengers, but it wasn't until 1930 that the first woman flew as a flight attendant.

The First Female Flight Attendant

Ellen Church

Ellen Church, a registered nurse, was the first person to suggest that women could work as stewardesses. Specifically, she argued that nurses were aptly suited to take care of ill passengers. She pitched the idea to United Airlines, who decided to experiment with the idea. In May of 1930, 25-year-old Church traveled from Oakland to Chicago as the world's first stewardess.

United hired eight registered nurses as flight attendants for a 3-month trial period. The "Original Eight" stewardesses had many responsibilities including:

  • Taking tickets
  • Loading luggage
  • Serving small refreshments
  • Distributing gum to help with ear popping
  • Acting as a tour guide by pointing out landmarks and talking about the flight's destination
  • Generally looking out for the well-being of the passengers

Why Women?

Original Eight

The Original Eight Stewardesses

The job of stewarding in the sky began as an exclusively male occupation because of the worry that women were too delicate to fly and deal with emergencies. However, once Ellen Church had helped establish the place of competent registered nurses as flight attendants, it increasingly became a woman's job.

Beyond the benefit of having registered nurses aboard, female flight attendants, more so than males, made passengers feel at ease. The original expectation was that the female flight attendants would take care of the passengers like a mother would a child or a nurse would a patient.

Read More about the standards expected of early stewardesses.