Plano woman was stewardess aboard 1939 Chicago to NY flight

By Kristy Lawrie Gravlin

When passenger air travel was in its infancy those people brave enough to take a flight needed to be safeguarded by the presence of a registered nurse on the plane. And so the job description for the stewardess included the requirement that she be a graduate of a school of nursing.

The very first passenger flight from Chicago to New York was offered in 1939. United Air Lines was able to whisk their customers across the eastern half of the country in only 3.5 hours on a Douglas DC-4 with propeller driven engines.

The stewardess on that first flight was Mary Jane Whitfield of Plano. Born about 1917, Mary Jane graduated from Plano High School in 1934. She continued her education at the St. Francis School of Nursing at Loyola University where she received a B.S. in Nursing.

Mary Jane's parents were Albert and Olive Whitfield. The family, including Mary Jane and her two brothers, John and David, were all listed on the 1930 Census for Plano.

While not much is known about Mary Jane, the requirements for her job indicate that she was less than 5'5" tall and weighed between 100 and 125 pounds. Airliners were not spacious and so petite stewardesses were the only choice. She did not wear glasses and she must have had a pleasing personality as well as excellent health. Once she reached 25, or if she married, she was no longer eligible to work.

The pay for being a stewardess was one of the many advantages. A monthly wage of $125 was $50 more than a nurse with five years experience could make. However, many gave up the job within four months in order to marry either a pilot or a frequent customer.

The nursing background of the stewardess was important since it indicated that she could be kind and gentle with the many passengers who were nervous about flying. At the same time she was bright and had a good head on her shoulders that would enable her to take charge in emergencies and see to the safety of the passengers.

Mary Jane's (and other early stewardesses') tasks included passing out cigarettes, chewing gum and good warm coffee to the passengers. This service was not always easy, as there frequently was turbulence that shook passengers and stewardesses. The airplanes of the time did not have enough power to go up and over clouds and storms and so they were forced to fly through them. Stewardesses who worked on longer flights, those of five hours or more, would pass out electric shavers so that the men could arrive looking their best.

The cabins were not pressurized as they are now so there were times when all aboard were required to wear oxygen masks as they flew at certain altitudes.

If an unplanned stopover was necessary for some reason, the stewardess had the responsibility of helping the passengers and entertaining them with card games and parties at piano-bars all through the delay, and then bringing them back when Mother Nature relented and the flight could continue.

Stewardesses had other assignments too. At times they needed to haul the luggage on board, screw down seats, which became loose, put fuel in the planes, and push the planes into the hanger at the end of the trip.

Originally published in the Plano Record, Plano, Illinois

Used by permission of Kathy Farren, Editor.

Last Modified on 2012-12-20 03:21:00-0600 CST by Elmer Dickson