The Mystery Item Identified!

The mystery of the object in the middle of the Continental Airlines aisle has been solved – it’s a film projector. The first movies shown on scheduled flights debuted in May of 1962 aboard TWA, so for Continental to put a projector in an ad that same year showed prospective passengers that they were keeping up with technology. Thanks to Greg Hemsath for identifying it.

Any questions? Please feel free to send an email to me at…

What An Unlikely Thing To Serve On An Aircraft…

SASCrayfish1In the 1950’s SAS Scandinavian Airlines was famous for their fine food, taking smorgasbord dining to the skies and provoking what came to be called the “sandwich wars.” The good people at the SAS Museet in Oslo sent me some pictures of service in this era, and the accompanying shot attracted my attention. Crayfish and akavit are delicious together, but under the best of circumstances removing the shells from crayfish can be messy and create a lot of small litter. Scandinavian gourmets might be expert at removing the shells without getting bits on their lap, but it must have been humorous to watch Americans who had never seen the creatures before trying to dine with the same delicacy of their neighbors. The unintentional inflight entertainment would have been another benefit of traveling SAS during the years when all carriers vied to provide the best of everything to their passengers.

Mysterious Object Aboard A Continental Jet…

I mentioned on the front page that I’d sometimes be asking your help figuring out what was going on in some of the pictures I’ve found over the years, and I’d like to do that right now. Take a look at this Continental Airlines advertisement from 1962: COGoldCarpetSvc1962Airchive

1. First of all, what is the thing on the table? I see a speaker grille on the side facing the camera, those look like controls on the top, and it looks vaguely like a reel-to-reel tape player – but why would one of those be in the middle of an aircraft cabin? It’s not a television, because even though transistor TV’s that were smaller than tube models became available that year, the most compact was about a foot wide. There was also no way to receive television in flight at that time. Whatever the thing is, nobody seems to be paying any attention to it.

2. The electronic equipment of that era was expensive, heavy, and fragile. The mystery object is sitting on a flat table in an aircraft with nothing holding it down, making it a projectile waiting to happen at the first sign of turbulence. Nothing good could happen to it or the people drinking Champagne nearby in that case.

3. The mystery thing is sitting on a partition in the cabin that looks like it has a frosted plastic insert. Since it is in the center of the aisle, it might have some small degree of functionality if the idea is to make it unable to clearly see the people on the other side of the cabin, but that’s all I can think of when it comes to utility.

Those are my questions… anyone with answers is invited to contact me at

When Mohawk Airlines Celebrated The Gay 90’s…

In my book I mentioned a promotion that was a triumph of making lemonade when life gives you lemons – the period from 1960 to 1962 when New York-based Mohawk Airlines was flying from Albany to Buffalo with DC-3s that really should have been in museums. After passengers complained about the outdated aircraft, some marketing genius decided that if they were struck with old airplanes, they might as well decorate them to look even older. Someone looked at pictures of old railroad cars, measured the aircraft for lace headrest covers, gold-filigreed wallpaper, and Victorian curtains, and “Gaslight Service” was born. It looked like this:GaslightExteriorMohawkGaslightStew

The theme was applied brilliantly – Stewardesses dressed like dance hall ladies passed out cigars, pretzels, and beer, and the airline schedules carried the warning that passengers should close the windows when going through tunnels. It was a wonderfully silly promotion that worked brilliantly; suddenly passengers wanted to fly the previously scorned airplanes instead of their faster rivals. During the two years of service Mohawk served 31,700 cans of beer, 17,600 cigars, a ton of pretzels, and half a ton of cheese, and earned enough money to buy new airplanes. Southwest Airlines, PSA, and other carriers had their whimsical moments, but this was probably the most light-hearted airline promotion ever…

An Unlikely Artifact of the Airship Era…

Look at the grandeur of a dinner aboard the Hindenburg, the tables set as nicely as any restaurant of the era, starched linen shining, elegant china made just for the company set with mathematical precision…hindenburg-dining017web

The sense of solidity is so illusory – between fiery crashes and deliberate destruction, it all must be lost. Or is it? I was quite surprised when I found this at an airline memorabilia show in San Francisco:

ZepCHinaIt turns out that the company recognized that despite the renowned stability of the zeppelin, a higher level of breakage might be expected than at a restaurant on the ground, so they had a lot of extra dinnerware made. Alas, this wasn’t in my budget at the time so I couldn’t take it home, but even getting to see it was awe-inspiring.

The Stewardess As Goddess…

When I looked at some airline ads, I kept having the feeling that I had seen these kind of images before, but couldn’t figure out where. Then I made the connection, assisted by a little mythology:

Pomona, Roman goddess of Abundance, as portrayed by William Morris about 1899

Pomona, Roman goddess of Abundance, as portrayed by William Morris about 1899

TWA ad, late 1950's

TWA ad, late 1950’s


Two woman, both offering food, surrounded by succulent-looking food – the stewardess and the goddess both promise abundance. One major difference: Pomona is usually portrayed as pregnant, and stewardesses in that era immediately lost their jobs at the first sign of incipient motherhood…

Ambitious, But Not Very Practical…

The first manned balloon flights were in 1783, and almost immediately the question of feeding the courageous aeronauts arose. The Belgian mathematician and engineer Étienne-Gaspard Robert, a dilettante inventor whose most famous creation was the magic lantern show, an early type of image projection, proposed this craft in the year 1804:

Minerva Balloon 1804

Minerva Balloon 1804

This balloon, called the Minerva, was intended to carry 150,000 pounds and accommodate 60 passengers. Among the items that were provided in the various rooms were an observatory, gymnasium, pilot house, doctor’s office, theatre, study, and, most to the point of this website, “The kitchen, far removed from the balloon. It is the only place where a fire shall be permitted.”

It would be easy to dismiss Robert, who also performed as a stage magician under the name Doctor Robertson, except for the fact that he was a keen scientist who also made many balloon ascents to observe natural phenomena. He took pigeons and butterflies to high altitudes to observe them, tested the evaporation of water and ether at different heights, measured air pressure, and tried many other experiments. Unfortunately he was not an astute observer, and many of his conclusions were wrong. He and an assistant once got to over 23,000 feet and set a height record, nearly freezing to death and asphyxiating in the process.

It is obvious to a modern observer that the Minerva could never have flown, but the fact that Robert had been thoughtful about the placement of the kitchen shows him to be the first to consider the problems of cooking in flight.

Flying Boats: The Symbol of Progress

When a new invention becomes a success, the natural instinct of the businessman is to associate your product with it. That probably explains these products:


The name Clipper was a trademark of Pan Am, but apparently the laws regarding infringement were a lot more lenient in those days. Pan Am and the San Francisco brewery that made this beer are both long defunct, but one can still imagine the locals watching takeoffs from the airbase in Oakland, sipping a beer and wishing they were aboard.