The following two individuals are credited with pioneering the stewardess profession in 1930, Steve Stimpson and Ellen Church.
When commercial aviation began, most airline operators felt the skies were only for men. But Steve Stimpson of Boeing Air Transport, a predecessor company of United Airlines, believed “flight nurses” would be a welcome service for the growing transportation industry. In 1930 he successfully convinced the people he worked for, and today’s flight attendant was born.
Here’s the letter that started it all!
The information that follows is from a speech Steve Stimpson delivered at the 25th Anniversary Stewardess Luncheon at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Calif., on May 12, 1955 and excerpts from his interviews with the The Denver Post, December 26, 1962, page 27; and The Grand Rapids Press, December 25, 1973, page 6G. (Provided courtesy of the UAL Archives)
My Career Choice
Stimpson recalls, “When I got out of the army after World War I, I got a job with a steamship line. But aviation was what I was really interested in and after a few years with the steamship line I got a job with an air transport line (Boeing Air Transport).
By 1929, I was the firm’s district manager in San Francisco. Our office handled all of the airline’s business – airmail, freight, passengers, everything. We had a big sign in the window, ‘Chicago in 20 hours.’ Back in 1929, that was pretty fantastic.
Enter Ellen Church
Well, I’d often noticed this girl pass our office and one Sunday morning I was holding down the office in the St. Francis hotel when this young lady stopped in to inquire about air fares. She said her name was Ellen Church and that she was interested in airplanes. The sign on the window intrigued her.
Ellen was a nurse at the French Hospital in San Francisco and she told me of her activities, duties, etc and the fact that she held a private pilot’s license and could fly a little. In view of this fact, she thought we should give her a special rate. We had quite a conversation.
Every now and then she would stop in, just to talk aviation. She was a really likable girl and we became pretty good friends even though I couldn’t give her any encouragement about a job.
Back in those days it was the co-pilot’s job to look after the passengers. He passed out box lunches and served coffee from a thermos bottle. Our planes flew at about 100-110 miles per hour, barely fast enough to stay in the air, so we couldn’t fly very high. Consequently, rough flights were the usual thing and passengers often got airsick. I had to do quite a bit of traveling on company business and when I was aboard, I was glad to help take care of the passengers, as the copilot usually had something more important to do.
Two minds think alike
When I was with the steamship line, I had noted how the ship’s stewards could be just as useful aboard an airplane. Passenger traffic was increasing to the point where the copilots couldn’t take care of them and do their main job too.
Well, I mulled over the idea of using a plane steward for some time, even though I didn’t have any authority in the matter. But one day while Miss Church was in, it occurred to her that a qualified girl could do a better job than a man. When she mentioned it, I had to agree. She appeared to have just the right qualifications. Being a graduate nurse, institutionally trained, she was obviously intelligent and competent. Furthermore, she was a friendly girl who seemed to like everybody.
I sent a long letter to the traffic manager at our headquarters in Cheyenne, Wyoming telling him all the reasons for hiring stewardesses that I could think of; the psychology of having young women as regular members of the crew, the publicity it would bring us, the jobs they could do, such as keeping records, filing reports, issuing tickets, etc.
I promptly got a telegram in reply – ‘No’. It was the shortest telegram I have ever received. I still have it.
A career is born
Then William A. Patterson, assistant to the company president, got in the act. He was pretty dubious about it too, but after talking it over with his wife Vera, he became convinced it might be worth a try. He gave me permission to hire eight stewardesses for a three month trial period.
We were off to a flying start in more ways than one. We had one month to hire and train the girls, design and have their uniforms made, write a manual, work out schedules and many other things such as, even in those days, that of adequate expense accounts.
It was decided to start our new Stewardess Service with a total of eight girls for the entire run from San Francisco (SFO) to Chicago, and I thought we could hire all eight girls from around the San Francisco area, but we could only get four girls in San Francisco, including the very able and capable Miss Ellen Church, who came to us from the French Hospital in SFO. Promptly, therefore, we named Miss Church Chief Stewardess for the System and sent her to Chicago to hire four more girls – which she did.
The Original 8
I am happy to tell you that shortly thereafter we all met in Cheyenne, Wyoming, the four girls from SFO and the 4 from Chicago for some hasty but very conscientious training before the start of our new transcontinental schedules began. Needless to say, everything went OK and the World’s First Stewardess Service began right on schedule.
The four Chicago girls flew the ‘Eastern Division’ between Cheyenne and Chicago and the other four the ‘Western Division’ from Cheyenne to San Francisco. I am very glad it was at this time we had all of the company’s eight stewardesses together for that celebrated photograph of the group was taken in Cheyenne, before the start of the new service, because, as you know, it would be impossible to ever again get all of our girls together at one time for a group photograph.
Naming a profession
As to the name stewardess, for a long time it was felt that this name or title left something lacking and through the years, many names were suggested to replace stewardess such as: cadette, attendant, courier, courierette, agent, airette, pursurette, airess, page, attaché, escort, hostess, skipper, airmaid, airaide, aidette, etc. But, it looks like ‘stewardess’ will be with us for a long time.
Stewardess Manual #1 was written to become effective with the start of the service.
It was shortly replaced by manual #2. The principal differences being that #1 stipulated that pilots were not to receive meals free enroute. You can well appreciate the explosion this created in the cockpit and the reason for #2 saying free meals for crew OK. (A Scotchman in the company at that time was responsible for the ‘no free meals’ rule).
Manual #2 also included a very specific instruction. We had considerable airsickness in those early days due to several things. Lower flying with rougher weather, slower trips and emergency travel first-flighters who were usually half sick before they ever boarded our planes. Whenever a customer wanted to go to the lavatory, I told the stewardess she had to take him by the arm and deliver him to the lavatory door. The reason was because in the back of that big beautiful plane were two big doors – exactly alike, except one went to the lavatory and the other would have delivered the passenger outside!
In 1930 our new service called for a schedule of 20 hours, San Francisco to Chicago and we were justly proud of it – and this was not as long as it sounds when you consider the stops made enroute – a total of 13! (Oakland and Sacramento, California, Reno and Elko Nevada, Salt Lake City, Utah, Rock Springs and Cheyenne, Wyoming, North Platte, Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska, Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, Iowa and on finally to Chicago, Illinois.)
The three month trail proved a resounding success and additional recruiting was approved. Some of the girls we hired found the job too rugged and others got married. I was kept busy finding replacements.
‘I’ve been kicked out of some of the best hospitals on the Pacific Coast’, Steve Stimpson said. ‘Hospital superintendents hated to see me coming because they knew what I wanted…some of their best nurses.’
Stimpson designed the first uniform made of dark green wool. The suit jacket was accessorized with a Boeing Air Transport insignia pin on each lapel. The pin has been called the “Boeing Bug” or the” Boeing Totem Pole”.
The classic double breasted suit of the day was complimented with six brass buttons. The jacket sleeves featured gray accent stripes with brass buttons. A gray blouse with a rounded neckline was worn under the jacket. A calf-length, straight skirt with two front kick pleats complimented the jacket. A matching dark green wool cape with a gray collar and gray flannel lining, along with a ‘shower cap’ style tam was worn with the suit in cooler weather. Black tied oxfords, with a sensible heel, complimented the uniform attire. (Legacy of the Friendly Skies, Gwen Mahler, 1991)
“All of which reminds me, and as you probably know the girls wore neat, stiffly starched gray smocks on board, but were required to change into their green uniforms before landing at principal terminal. This situation did occur when we had tail winds blowing across the country and into airports ahead of schedule – and in consequence thereof – we found that our girls spent about half their time, dressing and undressing!
No Marriage Rule
About our stewardesses marrying and resigning. I haven’t any idea how many thousand have married since the inception of the service – or how many hundreds married our company personnel, including pilots of course, but the figures would be very interesting. In this connection, we mustn’t overlook the fact that our own Vice president, Mr. Robert Johnson, married our then Chief Stewardess, Miss Rosalie Gimple in Chicago, some years ago, and also the fact that our President’s pretty daughter, Patty Patterson was a stewardess before she married…(Good thing pilots didn’t have to resign when they married.)
As to married stewardesses, we hired only one – that we know of – and that was very early when we were in a great hurry…She was Mrs., or otherwise known as Miss Ellis Crawford, and we also got her from the French Hospital in San Francisco. Miss Crawford would be out on a trip and be delayed by bad weather and/or other causes, sometimes for several days and her husband would phone me around 3:00am in the morning and say ‘mister’ where is my wife?
Varied duties were the norm
As you probably know the early Stewardesses had several and varied duties apart from taking tickets and serving food. (And incidentally, we did serve good food and beverages aboard too – out of our thermos bottles of hot water, we made coffee, tea, beef broth, hot chocolate, hot milk or just plain hot water).
Some of the women’s other duties aboard the aircraft consisted of winding and setting the large clock in the cabin, adjusting the altimeter at each stop for correct readings according to the field altitude and last, seeing that the air speedometers in the main cabin were functioning property, as these instruments, all mounted in the forward bulkhead in the cabin helped the passengers to help the pilot through the (mountain) passes.”
Stewardesses were also assigned the following tasks:
Pre-flight they were required to sweep the cabin, adjust the passenger lamp shades and tighten the floor bolts that the passenger seats snapped into. Once the passengers arrived they would carry, weigh and tag their luggage and also weigh each passenger! When necessary they would even help carry buckets of fuel to the plane.
Once onboard they punched tickets, prepared telegrams for passengers, offered passenger slippers then cleaned their shoes before returning them. They were required to be well acquainted with train schedules all along the route to help those making connections or in the event weather would force a long delay and ground the plane. They would monitor heating and ventilation of the cabin, offer blankets to passengers when malfunction of heating and ventilating occurred. Since the windows on some of the early aircraft opened, their duty was also to swat flies! For the restless or nervous passenger they would administer Amytal or Seconal to induce sleep.
Post flight at the various stops they were also required to give refunds when requested and at the end of the flight they would help push the plane into the hanger.
(Source – Legacy of the Friendly Skies, Gwen Mahler, 1991)
According to Steve Stimpson, “The stewardesses had one more duty. In the early days the windows in the first planes slid open and it was the girl’s job to caution the passengers not to put their arms or heads out of the window or to throw anything from the windows. Once a passenger threw an empty bottle out over Sacramento and nearly killed a pedestrian.
(Pictured below is one of the cabin window signs.)
Actually, few of the real hazards seemed to be in the air. We used the Oakland Airport across the Bay from San Francisco as our terminal for plane departures and arrivals and transported the passengers across the bay in a limousine aboard a Ferry boat. This seemed somewhat slow, and to speed it up we adapted the use of a fast speed boat cruiser to move the passengers from San Francisco to Oakland airport via the San Francisco bay and up a river channel to the field. This idea was primarily to speed up the airmail and looked good on paper and the passengers went along for the ride. And, believe me, it was some ride! We used more air-sick remedies on those trips while dodging ferry boats on the Bay, with our horn blasting away, than we ever used in the air. Passengers seemed very happy to get aboard our planes and relax!
Some comparisons of schedules and fares, then and now, may be of interest, 1930 Coast to Coast – 32 hours was $260 for a one way fare and today (1955) the trip takes 7-1/2 hours and the one way fare is $160.
The Stewardesses worked very hard on those early trips because for one thing, we experienced more rough weather due to lower flying and strong head winds, especially westbound over Nevada in the summer time. Seat belts were the order of the day. We knew a passenger, a sort of rotund person who told me he had worn his belt tight for some hours. It was so tight in fact that the impression of the belt buckle was firmly impressed into his stomach for days thereafter.
The stewardesses made many friends for United Air Lines and, of course, for themselves too right from the beginning. They were naturally very popular with the traveling public, who were mostly men. For instance, we recall a phone call from Mr. Peter B. Kyne asking who the crew would be out on the eastbound trip the following night…I checked up, called him back and told him ‘Pilot Smith and copilot Jones’ and Peter got mad and said say, I don’t mean them – who the heck is the girl?’
Basically it all boils down to service to the traveling public in those days, just the same as it does today (1955). Originally the stewardesses, while on trips, reported any irregularities directly to us in San Francisco by telegram. And in closing, as an example of service and reporting, I will quote a wire we received from one of the girls, which is self explanatory.
"Trip two terminated Omaha account weather. Escorted passenger Mr. Brown to hotel. No complaints.’"
Steve Stimpson retired from UA in 1962 after 34 years in air transportation. On January 19, 1974, Steve passed away at his home in Burbank, Calif., at age 78. Before he died, he requested that memorial contributions go to the Clipped Wings® organization.
On May 8, 1975, Clipped Wings® United Air Lines Stewardess Alumnae dedicated their special tribute to Steve Stimpson, the father of stewardess service at United Airlines’ Education and Training Center in suburban Chicago. A flowering crabapple tree will bloom each May to commemorate the beginning of stewardess service.
Located beneath the crabapple tree is a bronze medallion that is mounted to a large granite stone. The memorial was designed by Clipped Wings® member Jean Talboy Stein.
Ellen Church’s journey began at the University of Minnesota, where she earned a degree in nursing in 1926 (the year United’s predecessor company Varney Airlines began operations). From there she traveled on to San Francisco, becoming an instructor of nurses at the French Hospital, near the downtown of the city. But once she was on her own and earning a living, the adventurer within her surfaced.
During World War I, when she was a little girl, she had spent hours watching servicemen learn to fly in a pasture next to her family’s farm in Iowa. She was mesmerized by the wailing engines, the endless takeoffs and landings. She wanted to be a part of it all. And so one day a decade later, Church went down to the little airfield near San Francisco Bay, pulled out her wallet, and asked for flying lessons. Soon she was wheeling and soaring over the peninsula, an aviator in the making. But female pilots were excluded from the fledgling air carriers. Commercial aviation was a man’s world.
That changed in 1930. Church was window shopping downtown when she came upon the Boeing Air Transport office and read promotions about its new Model 80A passenger transports. She walked in. Because it was a holiday, manager Steve Stimpson was alone without much to do. So the two struck up a conversation about aviation and air travel. It was then that Church learned the airline was hiring male stewards to attend to passengers in flight. “Why wouldn’t a girl with nurse’s training do a better job serving lunch and looking after passengers on a plane?” she asked. He agreed and said he would check with headquarters and get back to her. He was good to his word, and on May 15, 1930 Church and seven other young nurses had begun new careers.
Two years later, in 1932, an automobile accident cut short Church’s career on the Main Line, and she returned to nursing full-time. She then donned a different set of wings during World War II as an air evacuation nurse retrieving wounded soldiers from combat areas.
Captain Ellen Church saw service in Africa, England, Italy, France and Germany and was one of the few women to be awarded Air Medals. She formed friendships with some of the most famous military leaders of the day.
After the war, Ellen returned to nursing, becoming an administrator of the Union Hospital in Terre Haute, Indiana. She worked there from 1951-1964. In September 1964, she married Leonard B. Marshall, an attorney and president of the Terre Haute First National Bank.
Although Ellen pursued other career interests after leaving United, the company continued to recognize the part she played in creating the profession. Every five years on or near the May 15 anniversary Ellen, along with Steve Stimpson, would be invited to participate in a celebration where they were continually sought after for photos and interviews.
Ellen Church Marshall’s life came to an unexpected end one morning the following August when she was thrown from a horse. She died on August 27, 1965. But the adventure she embarked on and pioneered continues today for the thousands of United flight attendants – and countless others around the world – whose profession she helped to created.
(Source – The Age of Flight by William Garvey and David Fisher, 2001 and the UAL Archives)
Ellen Church Marshall Memorial
On January 19, 1966, the National President of Clipped Wings®, Mrs. Robert (Vicy) Zelsdorf, received the following letter from William A. Patterson, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of United Air Lines after the tragic death of Ellen Church Marshall the previous year.
Dear Mrs. Zelsdorf,
“I know that you, as a dedicated and loyal alumnae of the United Air Lines, have always been extremely interested in perpetuating the association of the wonderful ladies who over the years have contributed so much to our company.
The one person we have always looked upon with great devotion was Mrs. Ellen Church Marshall. She started it all. When she passed away I felt very strongly that United Air Lines should do something to honor her and perpetuate, in the memory of all, the name of a wonderful lady.
A few weeks ago, I recommended to the board of Directors that United Air Lines make a contribution to the Union Hospital of Terre haute, Indiana. This hospital turned out to be her final life’s work. She worked long and hard for it. I was very pleased when the Directors approved my recommendation that United contribute $25,000 to this hospital to be used in any manner that would represent one of Mrs. Marshall’s main objectives.
In addition, we plan to name the new wing to be added to our training facilities here in Chicago, ‘The Ellen Church Marshall Memorial Wing’ of the United Air Lines Stewardess School. In addition to the identification, we plan to have a sculptor design a bronze statue to occupy a prominent place in the lobby of this building.
We are also having a bronze plaque made with no identification for Mrs. Marshall’s association with United Air Lines, but with a brief outline of her contributions as a nurse to air transportation in establishing a prominent place for wonderful people in this industry. This plaque will be sent to every airline stewardess school in the world in the hope that it will be placed in a prominent location for all to see and know for years to come. I am sure that without identification as a part of United Air Lines, there will be no opposition to honoring this great lady.
I feel sure that the members of the Clipped Wings® will be interested in what we are trying to do to honor a great lady responsible for the important part that stewardesses throughout the world have played in the development of air transportation.”
William A. Patterson
During a luncheon ceremony in the fall of 1966, the memorial bronze statue was dedicated.
At the time of the dedication, Ellen Church Marshall plaques were given to the stewardess training schools of the following airlines:
Bonanza Air Lines
Braniff International Airways
Canadian Pacific Air Lines
Delta Air Lines
Eastern Air Lines
Japan Air Lines
Irish International Airlines
North Central Airlines
Pan American World Airways
The dedication on the plaque is inscribed:
World’s First Airline Stewardess
ELLEN CHURCH MARSHALL
1904 – 1965
Humanitarian, war heroine and aviation pioneer, Ellen Church
Marshall dedicated her indomitable spirit to the service of
As the world’s first airline stewardess, she created a new
and exciting profession for young girls of the 20th century.
As a much-decorated Air Corps nurse in World War II, she
brought comfort and relief to thousands of American soldiers
who were wounded on the battlefields of Europe.
And as a peacetime nursing instructor and hospital administrator,
she guided vast numbers of young women along the path once
taken by another humanitarian, Florence Nightingale.
Born September 22, 1904 on a farm near Cresco, Iowa, Ellen
Church Marshall combined imagination, persistence and her own
personal warmth to meet life’s challenges along the way; and with
her death on August 27, 1965, the world lost a truly great and
Her name will serve forever as a symbol of the selfless devotion
that rests in the hearts of nurses and stewardesses all over the
Here it is shown at United’s Education and Training Center in suburban Chicago, circa 2010.
(photo courtesy Carole Fry Tye)
(photo courtesy Carole Fry Tye)
(Photos, memorabilia and documentation provided courtesy of United Airlines Archives)