The Postcard Time Machine: The Golden Age of Airlines

This American Airlines Convair Flagship Boston postcard was issued by the airline and is commonly seen in online auctions selling anywhere from $4 to $14.

As a road warrior who travels by air several times a month for my day job, it was inevitable that I would develop an interest in airplane postcards. In particular, I like cards that show views of domestic passenger airlines from the 1940s to the present.

Most of the postcards I come across as I hunt for items to add to my collection show the aircraft itself, looking majestic as it flies through the clouds or sits on an airport runway. Issued by the airline companies and given away free for the asking to passengers, most of these describe the model and features of the specific aircraft shown. These postcards can usually be found for $2 to $3 in dealer boxes at postcard shows and on online auction sites.

Other airplane postcards were released in large quantities by commercial postcard publishers such as Mary Jane’s and Aeroprint and by museums. These can be found for 25 to 50 cents in dealer bargain boxes, but tend to sell in the $2 to $5 range online. Of course, postcards from airlines no longer in business—especially luxury passenger carriers such as Pan Am and TWA—showing unusual aircraft such as hydroplanes and planes from small countries are more rare and more desirable.

After amassing hundreds of these, filed alphabetically by the name of the airline, I became bored with exterior views. I then turned my attention to postcards showing airline employees, passengers and the interiors of passenger planes. These are harder to find and sell for $5 to $10 at shows or a bit more in online auctions. They were used by the airlines to create a feeling of safety, show off the latest air travel luxuries and lure customers by touting the benefits of flying with them rather than their competitors.

As a resident of Tampa, FL, I’m proud to note that the United States’ first scheduled commercial airline flight took place on January 1, 1914, between St. Petersburg and Tampa, FL. The biplane, flown by Tony Jannus, took 23 minutes to travel the route, flying 50 feet above Tampa Bay. One of the parking areas at Tampa International Airport bears Jannus’ name and continues to remind us of his remarkable achievement.

During the 1920s, the U.S. Postal Service developed its airmail network. As part of the process, the postal service offered 12 contracts for various routes to independent companies that bid for the privilege. Some of these airlines evolved into American Airlines, Braniff International Airways, Delta Air Lines, Eastern Air Lines, Northwest Airlines, Pan American World Airways, Trans World Airlines and United Airlines, which started out as a division of the Boeing Company.

The first successful American airplane to carry passengers was the Ford Trimotor, made by Ford Motor Company in 1925. With its capacity of 12 people, the Trimotor caught the interest of some companies that began to believe transporting everyday people by air could be profitable and might even give the railroads a run for their money.

In 1933, Boeing’s 247 became the first commercial airliner. A propeller plane, it had two engines and could carry 10 passengers economically enough to make the U.S. airline industry take off. The Douglas DC-3 wasn’t far behind, and passenger airplane and airline competition had begun.

I invite you to take a nostalgic airplane trip with me—back in the days before airport security searches, when flying on a plane was quite thrilling and when we passengers were pampered with luxury and services.

While we watch excitedly from the airport terminal building or from a roped-off area on the tarmac, the ground crew gets the plane ready for boarding. This United crew is loading baggage and mail aboard before takeoff, by hand, one piece at a time.

The plane is a DC-6 Mainliner 300 prop, with a capacity of 52 passengers. Part of the fleet of United’s luxury liners, the Mainliner began flying in 1947. It could carry up to 5,400 pounds or passengers and cargo, and it traveled as fast as 300 miles an hour, flying between mainline-airway cities. The airplane’s patriotic colors and the sharp white uniforms of its crews helped instill feelings of pride and security in early commercial passengers.

This 1940s postcard was issued by United Airlines and cost one cent to mail. Expect it to start at auction for at about $8.

This postcard boasts an unusual view, which I haven’t seen it online. I would expect it to start at auction for at about $8.

As always, we get the red carpet treatment when we board. “Red Carpet” is actually a service mark owned by United Airlines, and it still provides a very short red carpet for passengers in its priority-boarding lane today. When United started putting down this rich, red carpet for its customers to use, it spelled out the ultimate in luxury, especially for the ladies who didn’t have to worry about spoiling their shoes while walking on the runway in their high heels.

Circa early 1950s, this postcard shows passengers walking toward the plane, where they’ll walk up a staircase into it. I thought walking across the tarmac was obsolete in larger airports until a very recent trip when I had to disembark onto the wet, snowy ground at Denver’s huge, modern Stapleton airport. Although I was flying United, there was no red carpet for me.

When you can find this United Airline red-carpet card, it will usually be priced from $3 to $6.

Issued by United Airlines, the stamp box on this postcard offers to “speed your mail by air” service for four cents.

I took my first airplane trip in 1960 when I was 8 years old. In those days, everyone dressed up to fly, as illustrated by the men in suits and ladies in their hats on this American Airlines Mercury DC-7 flagship. It’s a far cry from today, when people often board in skimpy shorts, tank tops and flip-flops.

The Douglas Aircraft Company built these DC-7s from 1953 to 1958. This model was one of the last major propeller aircraft, before the advent of jet travel. Soaring at 365 miles per hour, the Mercury flew coast-to-coast in 8 hours, non-stop. Traditionally, the term “flagship” referred to a vessel used by the commanding officer of a group of Navy ships. In the 1950s the moniker was given to the best planes in an airline’s fleet.

Imagine: White cloths protect our heads from the hair oils of previous riders. The overhead compartments don’t have many bags, since checking them is free, and everyone is expected to do so. Instead, they contain fluffy pillows and warm blankets for those of us wanting a nap. Sad to say, those amenities have been discontinued on almost all flights today.

The stewardesses (not yet “flight attendants”) are all women, their uniforms originally designed to make them look a bit like nurses so people would feel safe. Here we see one putting a bag in the overhead rack for a passenger. Look at all that legroom and the wide seats in this two-by-two cabin plan! Each seat’s armrest has a built-in ashtray, and the windows have cloth curtains.

This standard size postcard can often be seen in online auctions, with prices ranging from $6 to $13, depending on condition.

If we’re taking a flight on a DC-6 Mainliner with our families, we could fly the friendly skies in its club-car seating. Here are very formally dressed Grandma and Grandpa, flying with their daughter and grandchildren. A notebook, toy car and magazine are on the extra-long table.

The daughter’s seat is facing them in true club-car style, a takeoff on deluxe railroad-car compartments. When it began in 1971, Southwest Airlines had a small number of club-car seats toward the front of its airplanes designed for business travelers wanting to hold business meetings or for families. However, they didn’t go over very well, and were discontinued after a short time.

Issued by United Airlines, this card, circa 1940s, can be expected to sell between $8 and $12.

Well, our flight is well underway, and it’s time for our meal—cooked, provided free and served with a smile by the friendly stewardesses on our plane. This United Airlines postcard, postmarked 1937, shows the first-class cabin of the Skylounge, touted as the world’s most luxurious plane.

Captioned “Dining Aloft at 200 Miles an Hour,” the description on the back notes that we can fly nonstop between Chicago and New York in 3 hours, 55 minutes, or coast-to-coast in a mere 14 1/2 hours.

This lovely dinner is served on an individual table wheeled up to the seat, with real china, silver and a linen tablecloth and napkin. Several years ago I purchased some glass Delta Air Lines bowls in a thrift shop, and I still enjoy using them for my breakfast cereal.

This printed real photo postcard can be found in the $10 to 15 range.

United was always quite proud of its fine food, prepared from the recipes of its European chefs. This menu postcard, postmarked 1953, shows the food available on “The Hollywood” service from Los Angeles to Chicago. Ah yes, the usual: shrimp a la Tyrolienne, capon with dinner roll, salad with avocado Roquefort dressing and strawberries Romanoff with liqueur, capped off by a dinner mint.

Brief biographies of the chefs, along with their portraits, appear to the left. We have chef Emil Salzmann from Switzerland, planning the meals in New York. Chef Eugene Ertle, in Chicago, trained in Alsace Lorraine before his illustrious restaurant career. Los Angeles’ chef Max Burkhardt, also from Switzerland, rounds out the culinary team.

Issued by the airline, these light-stock linen postcards can be found—with various sumptuous meal descriptions—at shows and online in the $5 to $7 range.

Since we’re flying economy class, our airplane food looks like this “wonderful meal” on an Eastern Air Lines’ Constellation. Brought by the flight attendant on a plastic tray, our meals are placed in front of us on the flip-down tables from the seatbacks in front of us.

Postmarked in 1955, Roy penned en route to Cuba, where the postcard was mailed, “I was kinda jumpy when we took off, but I am all right now. The picture on the front is what we had to eat for supper.”

A bit less elegant than first class fare, but I see real silverware and several courses, including shrimp cocktail, “mystery meat” and vegetables, a salad with black olives and dessert, along with a roll and condiments.

Expect to find this Eastern Air Lines–issued standard-size chrome postcard in the $4 to $6 range.

With dinner over, we might get bored sitting on the plane for a few more hours, so let’s go to the lower-deck club lounge on Northwest Airlines’ Boeing Stratocruiser. Sitting next to old, or new, friends to share a drink or a cigarette—yes, smoking on planes was common in those days—a little conversation or flirtation always makes the time pass more quickly.

Lest you think this is an exciting new innovation, these Boeing 377s were put into service by Northwest in early 1947. The Stratocruisers were large, long-range airliners inspired by the C-97 Stratofreighters, which were used for transporting troops during The Second World War. With two decks, they could easily fly above the weather at 30,000 feet.

And in the hands of domestic airline companies, they became known as “flying hotels.” Pan Am started flying its “Double Decked Strato Clippers” in 1950, purchasing the planes for $1.5 million each. Capable of holding 70 passengers and 10,000 pounds of luggage and cargo, they were used for international flights.

United called the craft their “Mainliner Stratocruisers,” and bought seven of them to use for flights between the mainland and Hawaii. They remodeled the interiors to include private compartments for 3 to 5 people, which included sleeping berths, designed for family travel. Although this reduced the passenger capacity to 55, the move increased the luxuriousness of the airplanes.

This postcard is difficult to find, but with some perseverance it can be bought in the $7 to $10 range.

Issued by Northwest Airlines during the late 1940s, the stamp box on this postcard invites us to “address and return the card to the stewardess who will stamp and mail it for you.”

The Micronesia Room in the Ponape Lounge on Continental Airlines’ 747 is a much more contemporary in-plane lounge. Don’t the décor and the passengers’ fashions just scream 1970s?

Continental was the only airline whose 747s had two lounges and a pub. And, as the description on the back of this postcard boasts, “Only Continental values its economy passengers enough to give them a friendly lounge all their own.” Note the bar at right, with booze on ice—and I promise not to mention that woman’s pantsuit.

Continental Airlines–issued, this postcard is only occasionally seen for sale, usually in the $6 to $8 range.

Boeing’s 747 was the world’s first wide-body airliner, having two aisles instead of one. Pan Am flew the craft internationally beginning in January of 1970. Commonly known as a jumbo jet, the 747 is about 230 feet long with a wingspan of 211 feet. At the tail, it’s the height of a six-story building. The 747 holds 568 passengers and cruises up to 580 miles per hour. It takes about 300 gallons of paint to cover a 747, adding 1,200 pounds to its weight.

At last, we’ve come to the end of our journey. As we gaily disembark from our fantastic ride, clothes hardly rumpled, our family and friends are waving to us from the passenger terminal just a few feet away.

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  1. Elizabeth says:

    My uncle worked for United, I will be sharing this with him. He will love it!

  2. Thank you for this wonderful, nostalgic “flight”!