The First Stewardess

The term seems hopelessly outdated today, but until the early 1980s, the majority of airline cabin attendants were female and it was commonplace to refer to them as “stewardesses.” In the late 1920s, a registered nurse named Ellen Church was so captivated with air travel that she took flying lessons. She approached the president of Boeing Air Transport (BAT) for a pilot position and was turned down. He did, however, like her alternate suggestion—having a registered nurse aboard each commercial flight to assuage the passengers’ fear of flying. Air travel was still a new idea at the time, and fledgling airlines were in need of some sort of safety assurance in order to encourage the general public to choose an airplane over a train for their travel needs.

On May 15, 1930, Church became the first stewardess when she worked the BAT flight from Oakland (California) to Chicago. She wore a specially designed uniform that included her nursing pin, and she served drinks and meals as part of her duties. BAT (which eventually became United Airlines) hired seven more stewardesses shortly afterward, and three years later each major airline had at least one stewardess aboard (who was not only a registered nurse, but who also was single, younger than 25, and weighed less than 115 pounds.)