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Not-So-Famous Firsts: Who Was the First Stewardess?

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Editor's Note: Last fall, Kara Kovalchik wrote a story titled '8 Not-So-Famous Firsts,' which covered such topics as the first auto insurance policy and the first wet t-shirt contest. This year, in our newest semi-regular feature, she'll be teaching us about all sorts of underappreciated firsts. This week's topic: aviation. Enjoy!

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The term seems hopelessly outdated today, but until the early 1980s, the majority of airline cabin attendants were female and it was commonplace to refer to them as "stewardesses." In the late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.)

In-Flight Movie

The first movie shown on a scheduled basis on a commercial flight was By Love Possessed. Unlike the already-available-on-DVD movies shown on today's flights, the 1961 potboiler starring Lana Turner and Jason Robards was still fresh in theaters when TWA started screening it in July of that year on flights between New York City and Los Angeles.

Hijacking
The first recorded hijacking of a commercial airplane occurred in Peru on February 21, 1931. A group of five Peruvian rebels commandeered a Pan American Airways Fokker F7 mail plane for the purpose of dropping propaganda leaflets from the sky.

Airport Codes
In the earliest days of aviation there weren't any official "airports"—any field with enough space for take-off would do. In the early 1920s, though, certain large cities had enough demand for air travel that small airports were built, and since temperature, precipitation and wind speed/direction were critical factors in air travel, the National Weather Service began using these airports as data points for reporting the weather. The NWS assigned two-letter codes (LA for Los Angeles, PH for Phoenix, etc.) to each airport for easy reference.

code-laDuring the 1930s the popularity of air travel exploded, and the International Air Transport Association decided to standardize the industry by assigning each airport a three-letter code. The oldest airports, which had previously been known by a two-letter designation, had an X added to their abbreviation. Incidentally, that sand dune in Kitty Hawk from whence the Wright Brothers made their historic flight has its own IATA designation: FFA, for First Flight Airport.


Airport Metal Detector
Airport security was virtually non-existent until a rash of hijackings occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Note that in the 1970 disaster film blockbuster Airport, not only was Helen Hayes able to freely travel around the world as a stowaway, but Van Heflin also easily carried a briefcase full of dynamite onto an international flight. In December 1972, the FAA finally decided that skyjacking was a big enough concern to issue an ultimatum: all U.S. airports had one month to install the necessary equipment and procedures to ensure that each and every passenger and his or her carry-on baggage would be properly screened.

The first metal detectors used at most airports were large, clumsy devices called magnetometers. These machines were originally designed for the logging industry (if a piece of metal is present in a log, it can severely damage the saw, so the magnetometer was devised to prevent mill shutdowns.) Unlike the door-frame design of today's metal detectors, the original magnetometers were tunnels about five feet long. Passengers walked up one ramp to enter the device, and down another to exit.

In-Flight Meals
Various airlines served cold sandwiches and hot coffee aboard flights (sometimes distributed by the co-pilot) as a way to attract passengers in the 1920s. In 1936, United Airlines established the first "in-flight kitchen," which had chefs preparing hot meals behind the scenes for stewardesses to serve to passengers en route.

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A Forgotten George Gershwin Musical Just Made Its American Debut
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In 1982, dozens of crates containing handwritten musical manuscripts—inked with the scribbles of Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and George Gershwin—were discovered in a warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey. Many of the scores contained lost or unpublished songs that had not been performed in decades, if ever. In an interview with The New York Times, Miles Kreuger, the president and founder of the Institute of the American Musical, called it "one of the monumental discoveries in the history of American musical theater."

Included in the crates were about 70 Gershwin tunes, including an autograph score to his largely forgotten 1924 musical, Primrose.

George Gershwin was one of the most popular, and important, American composers of the 20th century. His music, prized for being equally adventurous and accessible, was chameleonic. It seemed to fit in everywhere, comfortably toggling the jazz, theatrical, and symphonic worlds. In the theater, Gershwin helped establish a musical idiom that dominated for decades. (Fun fact: His Of Thee I Sing was the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.) In basement jazz clubs, much of his work became the bedrock of the Great American Songbook, the launching pad for generations of jazz musicians. In the classical concert hall, his symphonic work remains wildly popular—the pillar of Pops concerts.

But Gershwin’s reputation as the "All-American" composer belies the fact that a significant number of early staged scores remain missing. Some of Gershwin's Broadway music has not been heard in nearly a century. In the case of Primrose, it's been 92 years.

That's not unusual. During Gershwin's heyday, most showtunes vanished the moment the final curtain closed. "Musicals back then were like comic books," Michael D. Miller, founder and president of the Operetta Foundation, tells Mental Floss. "People waited and waited for the next one, and when it came out, the public devoured it. And when it was all said and done, they threw it out."

Take Gershwin’s other early Broadway shows: Many parts to the scores of Dangerous Maid (1921), Our Nell (1922), The Rainbow (1923), and Half Past Eight (1918) have disappeared. "If they didn't make it into one of the warehouses that belonged to companies that rented out scores, the scores might have just been destroyed," says Michael Owen, Consulting Archivist to the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts. The practice has left behind a trail of musical breadcrumbs. "That's the case with Gershwin's pre-1924 shows," Owen said. "There might be one fully-orchestrated song from a musical that still exists. Or there might be half a show that exists, but only as a piano with vocals. Or there might be some lyrics without piano, or piano without lyrics."

The same goes for recordings. The truth is, despite Gershwin's popularity, you can't listen to much of his work as it originally sounded. According to Miller, even recordings of tunes that Gershwin wrote at the height of his popularity, like those in Treasure Girl and Show Girl, are AWOL. Owen estimates that 25 percent of both George and his brother Ira Gershwin's oeuvre has not been recorded. "If you're talking 1923 and earlier, it gets very skimpy."

Primrose is lucky in that regard. A complete piano-vocal score was published when the show debuted in London, and cast recordings were sold. The musical simply slipped into obscurity, and the score plunged with it. It has never been performed in America—until now.


At its heart, Primrose is a tale of unwanted relationships—and a tribute to the lengths people will go to find happiness. In it, the novelist Hilary Vane uses his imaginative talents to cook up real-life schemes to unchain a web of unhappy characters from undesired paramours, freeing them to run off with their true loves. (Along the way, there are some cheerful Arthur Sullivan-esque songs, including one about the headless Mary, Queen of Scots.)

The play, which debuted on London's West End, brought Gershwin to Britain in 1924. He sailed the Atlantic with seven polished tunes already stuffed in his suitcase, many of which were attempts to write in the style of classic Edwardian romps. "I have inserted several numbers in 6/8 time, because the English are a 6/8 nation," he told the London Standard. "The Americans are a 4/4 nation and their music is essentially the fox-trot. But the English, who are used to good lyrics, like the 6/8 rhythm, which approaches most closely to ordinary speech."

The result—a unique fusion of brassy across-the-pond blue notes and British patter song—was distinctly different from anything playing on either side of the Atlantic. The English playwright Noël Coward was gobsmacked. He called the score's variety "extraordinary."

The great significance of Primrose, however, is that Gershwin not only wrote the music—he also orchestrated three tunes himself. Gershwin's orchestration skills have long been a point of controversy. Classical critics, in a fit of anti-showbiz snobbery, griped that he lacked the knowledge to write for large ensembles. Indeed, Gershwin's first stab at opera, Blue Monday, and his famed Rhapsody in Blue were orchestrated by other musicians.

It's here, on Primrose, that Gershwin cut his teeth writing for large ensembles. "These orchestrations are considered to settle a scholarly controversy—when did George learn orchestration?" writes theater expert James Ross Moore in the The George Gershwin Reader. These newly honed orchestration skills would make history, helping Gershwin write pieces that eventually cemented his place on the Mount Rushmore of American composers: his "Concerto in F," American in Paris, and all of Porgy and Bess.

Primrose saw 255 performances on the West End and even hopped to Melbourne and Sydney, Australia. But the Great American Composer's show never appeared in the United States. After premiering down under in 1925, Primrose was forgotten—interest wasn't rekindled until the handwritten scores popped up in that Secaucus warehouse 57 years later.

In 1987, the Library of Congress dusted off the recently discovered score and hosted a performance of Primrose. The play itself, however, was not staged: The dialogue-rich script was cut. Conversely, in 2003, Musicals Tonight!—a New York City group dedicated to reviving classic musicals—performed the musical, but, this time, the orchestrations were cut in favor of a lonely piano. Michael Feingold, a theater critic for the Village Voice, wrote that, "Enough comes across to make you see what the work could be, in the hands of knowing professionals, as part of a living tradition."

Well, pros have finally gotten their hands on it. Michael Miller and his colleagues spent days sifting through the Gershwin archives at the Library of Congress and reassembled the entire original score.

Now, for the first time in 92 years—and the first time in the United States—the curtain has finally opened on a fully-orchestrated, fully-staged production of Primrose, revived under the care of the Ohio Light Opera. Based in Wooster, Ohio (about an hour’s drive south of Cleveland, and a shorter jaunt from Cuyahoga National Park), the Ohio Light Opera will put on seven more performances between now and August 11. I had the privilege of taking in a dress rehearsal, and I can verify that it's a hoot.

As for the sea of other incomplete Gershwin works, there is hope. Scholars are currently working to bring them—all of them—back. At the University of Michigan, folks leading The Gershwin Initiative are working to publish critical editions (including full scores) to all of George and Ira Gershwin's works—including their embryonic stage pieces. (Perhaps they will resurrect the missing score to The Rainbow, which now stands alone as the only Gershwin musical to never enjoy an American premiere.)

In the meantime, Gershwin fans and music history buffs looking to take a road trip should look no further than Ohio: Click here for dates and tickets.

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American Motorcycle Association Hall of Fame via Wikipedia (Augusta and Abigail) // Public Domain
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The Bold Van Buren Sisters, Who Blazed a Trail Across America
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American Motorcycle Association Hall of Fame via Wikipedia (Augusta and Abigail) // Public Domain

Descendants of American president Martin Van Buren, Adeline and Augusta Van Buren were born into a life of privilege that assured them the safe and respectable existences of society women. But with America on the brink of war, the sisters ditched their gilded cages for a cross-country adventure they hoped would change their beloved nation for the better.

By July 1916, America was readying to enter World War I, and 32-year-old Augusta and 26-year-old Adeline were eager to do their part as motorcycling military dispatch riders, transporting crucial communications to the front line. Women were flat-out barred from combat duty in the U.S., but as bikers with thousands of hours logged on the roaring vehicles, the Van Burens felt they were uniquely qualified for such arduous and dangerous missions. And they were determined to prove it. By the end of their journey, they would become the first women to travel across the country on two solo motorcycles.

Fittingly, Addie and Gussie—as they preferred to be called—set forth on Independence Day. From Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay racetrack, they headed to the Lincoln Highway, which ran from Times Square in Manhattan to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. They had top-of-the-line bikes: $275 Indian Power Plus motorcycles that boasted Firestone "non-skid" tires and gas headlights that would allow them to barrel through the darkest nights. They had an indomitable spirit. They had each other. And they'd need all the courage and resources they could muster for this daunting endeavor.

“There were no road maps west of the Mississippi," their great-nephew and historian Robert Van Buren explained to the Worcester, Massachusetts Telegram of the sisters' epic journey. "The roads were just cow passes, dirt trails, wagon trails, things like that.” The Lincoln Highway was far from the paved superhighways of today. Heavy rain proved a major problem, wiping out roads and throwing the Van Burens off-course and off their bikes. “They had no helmets. They just had goggles with a leather cap and leathers on. They were really exposed to the elements,” Van Buren said. “They had a tough time.” Yet weather and murky maps weren't their only obstacles.

Just west of Chicago, the motorcycling mavens were pulled over by police—not for the way they were driving but for the way they were dressed. Though women's fashion was shifting from corsets to more comfy attire, dresses were still the norm. In some states it was actually illegal for women to wear pants. So the Van Burens' military-style leggings and leather riding breeches got them arrested again and again by confounded cops. Between arrests and weather delays, the sisters' one-month journey stretched into two.

By August, Addie and Gussie reached Colorado's Rocky Mountains and earned their first record, becoming the first women to reach the 14,109-foot summit of Pike's Peak by motorized vehicle. Running behind schedule, the sisters abandoned their plan to ride north through Wyoming, favoring a more direct path through the Rockies. Unfortunately, relentless rain transformed the mountains’ dirt paths to sucking mud that mercilessly trapped their tires. Exhausted, freezing, and filthy from their fruitless efforts to free their wheels, the dejected duo was forced to abandon their bikes and seek out help on foot. Hours and miles later, the sisters slid out of the darkness upon the small mining town of Gilman, Colorado. They were quite the sight to the awed miners: two angel-faced ladies draped in leather and caked in mud.

The miners offered them rest and food, then helped the sisters free their bikes. But another brush with disaster came 100 miles west of Salt Lake City, where the winds had whisked away the desert's path, and the pair was woefully low on water. Thankfully, their luck held up again: A prospector came along who not only had a horse-drawn cart packed with supplies, but also a keen sense of direction to get them back on their way.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

 
Exhausted and elated, Addie and Gussie Van Buren reached San Francisco at long last on September 2, having traveled 5500 miles, and completed their journey on September 8 after arriving in Los Angeles. And still, they pressed on, traveling down to the Mexican border and Tijuana.

Their remarkable ride earned headlines, but much of the media coverage disappointed. Leading motorcycle magazines focused on the bikes, not the bikers. Others ignored the purpose and historical import of their journey, publishing puff pieces about the ladies' curious "vacation." Worse yet, The Denver Post accused the sisters of exploiting World War I to abandon their duties at home to "display their feminine counters in nifty khaki and leather uniforms." But most vexing, the U.S. government was unmoved, and rejected the Van Burens' application for dispatch service.

Following their cross-country adventure, the boundary-busting sisters pursued new passions. In a time when female lawyers were unheard of, Addie earned her law degree at prestigious New York University. Meanwhile, Gussie became a pilot, flying in Amelia Earhart's Ninety-Nines, an international organization dedicated to creating a supportive environment and opportunities for aviatrixes. With these accomplishments, each sister added credence to Gussie's famous maxim, "Woman can, if she will."

While their journey didn't deliver the immediate impact the sisters had hoped for, today they are remembered as pioneers for women and motorcyclists alike. Addie and Gussie's courageous spirit and intense independence is celebrated by descendants and admirers who have kept their legacy alive through cross-country rides that traced their path on the trip's 90th and 100th anniversaries. Plus, both the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum's Hall of Fame in South Dakota and the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame of Ohio have posthumously inducted the Van Burens as esteemed members.

Both Addie and Gussie enjoyed full lives with careers that thrilled them, and family that loved and still rally around them, decades after their deaths at ages 59 and 75 respectively. In their time, these headstrong and hearty sisters witnessed the passing of the 19th Amendment that gave women the vote. They cheered the female patriots who rushed into the workforce as World War II demanded. They relished in a world that was changing to meet them, the industrious, rebellious, and brave Van Burens.

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