“To be an air stewardess is hard work and not to be recommended to someone who just wants to see the world,” said chief stewardess Anna Lönnqvist, who had a degree from Uppsala University. “To underline that, it should be remembered that we’re only allowed to do two flights to America each month and that the free time must be used for rest. It’s our New York route that seems to be the most attractive, even though it’s a 25-hour journey filled with hard work.” That hardly turned anyone away, even though the work was certainly not easy.
The first female flight attendant was a 25-year-old registered nurse named Ellen Church. Hired by United Airlines in 1930, she also first envisioned nurses on aircraft. Other airlines followed suit, hiring nurses to serve as flight attendants, then called “stewardesses” or “air hostesses,” on most of their flights. In the United States, the job was one of only a few in the 1930s to permit women, which, coupled with the Great Depression, led to large numbers of applicants for the few positions available. Two thousand women applied for just 43 positions offered by Transcontinental and Western Airlines in December 1935.
Female flight attendants rapidly replaced male ones, and by 1936, they had all but taken over the role. They were selected not only for their knowledge but also for their physical characteristics. A 1936 New York Times article described the requirements:
“The girls who qualify for hostesses must be petite; weight 100 to 118 pounds; height 5 feet to 5 feet 4 inches; age 20 to 26 years. Add to that the rigid physical examination each must undergo four times every year, and you are assured of the bloom that goes with perfect health.”
Here, photos taken at the McConnell Air Hostess School which trained air hostesses for TWA in the 1940s. The training included learning the correct way to serve drinks, dealing with inebriated passengers and even learning how to change nappies. Even more surprisingly they are also pictured having chewing gum to reduce that double chin, having their posture checked, doing the conga and having a bubble bath.
(Photos by Wallace Kirkland, via LIFE photo archive)