Author Michael Waldock's fascination with flight attendants began with a distinctly memorable experience. "The first time I came to the United States, I had to go from Los Angeles to San Francisco on a local airline called PSA. The flight attendants wore micro-minis and odd-shaped hats, and when I got on the plane, the flight attendant kissed me," he recalls.
"Those were the good old days," adds Johanna Omelia, Waldock's co-author and wife. "I never got kissed by a flight attendant, but I just think the history is fascinating."
Come Fly With Us!: A Global History of the Airline Hostess, the couple's coffee-table book based upon Waldock's personal collection of airline memorabilia, is filled with vintage photographs and magazine ads.
Commercial airline stewardesses didn't exist until the 1930s. But "right from the beginning, they became pop culture icons," Omelia notes. The earliest candidates were professional nurses, working in an environment that was considerably more dangerous than that of modern flight attendants. "The flights then were so luxurious that the passengers were people like Henry Ford and the film stars of the day," says Waldock.
By the 1950s, every stewardess faced stringent rules and restrictions on her height, weight, appearance and age. Marriage was forbidden, and forced retirement came at age 30.
In the '60s and early '70s, when the flight attendant career path was more prestigious than ever (major designers such as Pucci, Halston and Dior designed the ladies' cutting-edge uniforms), sexism was rampant, too. "Most of the airlines used their female staff as lures for the male business passengers," Omelia says. The book highlights some of the more notorious tactics, such as National Airlines' "Fly Me" campaign.
The situation has certainly improved since then. But Waldock notes that the public often forgets that flight attendants' real job is maintaining passenger safety, not serving food. "In the early days, they literally lived and died on the job. There have been lots of times when flight attendants proved themselves to be quite heroic."