Travel

This Is What Your Flight Used To Look Like (And It's Actually Crazy)

A stewardess serves a meal to a couple on an American Airlines flight, mid to late 1950s. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

Air travel has come a long way since the 1950s, this we know. We're deep into our bizarre affection for SkyMall, personal TV screens and in-flight WiFi (not to mention WiFi in general).

But in the 50s, flying was something different. It was something magical and marvelous. Air travel exploded into its Golden Age, and airplane trips weren't just a means of getting to your vacation -- they were a vacation in themselves. Passengers dressed in their finest to fly. They lined up for group photos before boarding. Riding an airplane made them feel like a movie star because it pretty much took the salary of a movie star to do so.

But not everything was so rosy. If you took a flight in the 1950s...

Turbulence could snap your neck.

Early commercial planes were powered with pistons, not jet engines. As a result, they were loud, vibrated fiercely, bumped like crazy in turbulence and were grounded often due to weather (things got smoother after the first commercial jet debuted in 1952). In the 50s, pressurized airplane cabins were relatively new to the scene. And a non-stop flight? Not likely -- getting across the country could require multiple layovers.

You had insane amounts of legroom.

Coach seats had three to six inches more legroom than they do today -- 1950s economy class looked more like business class does now. And first class was clearly about as spacious as a modern hotel room.

Your flight attendant wore a girdle and had a weight limit.

Flying was an over-the-top luxury experience, and leggy, chatty "hostesses" were part of the show. One stewardess recalls her airline's rule that she wear high heels at all times -- only after takeoff could she switch to flatter shoes. Hair had to be short enough so as not to touch her collar. A flight attendant manual mandated that stewardesses be single, stay under 125 pounds, and maintain "high moral standards" during employment.

You might have paid up to 5% of your salary for a ticket.

In the 50s, a flight from Chicago to Phoenix could cost $138 round-trip -- that's $1,168 when adjusted for today's inflation. A one-way to Rome would set you back more than $3,000 in today's dollars.

Lobster counted as airplane food.

With commercial plane travel a new market, airlines struggled to one-up each other by offering the fanciest meals. One vintage ad lists TWA's "full meal" to be served in-flight: soup, meat, salad, vegetables and dessert. Real glassware and roast beef were typical sights.

Smoking was totally acceptable... and for much longer than you'd think.

During the 1950s, smoking (of cigarettes, pipes and cigars) was totally acceptable in the air, but strangely not in the terminal (they were afraid cigarettes might ignite the fuel fumes). "Confusion and resentment" ran rampant when a law prohibited smoking on short domestic flights decades later, in 1988. It wasn't until 2000 that a law mandated all flights to and from the U.S. be smoke-free.

You were handed a postcard as you boarded.

Flying was so utterly rare that passengers felt compelled to document every moment on postcards with pictures of the plane or in-flight meal, to show their less lucky loved ones what the newfangled experience was like.

"The tradition at the time was that you would use your in-flight time to write people you knew on the ground, describing your flight," historian Guillaume de Syon explained to Fast Company.

You drank (LOTS) for free.

Alcohol was another popular form of in-flight entertainment: passengers were served as much free alcohol as they could drink, and it was not uncommon to come off a flight totally hammered.

Of course, the free boozing tapered off as air travel became less of a luxury industry and more of a commercial one. But in those early Golden Days, "people just poured themselves scotch after scotch".

You didn't show ID.

Even as late as 1970, passengers made it onto planes without ID of any sort -- a quick look-over from security did the trick. Showing up at the airport 30 minutes before your flight was totally fine, and well-wishers could walk right up to your gate where you boarded via stairs, not jet bridge. Passenger screenings wouldn't become mandatory until 1973.

Baggage claim was even more excruciating than it is now.

In the early 50s, you'd wait for a skycap to organize everyone's luggage on a counter. One by one, passengers pointed to their suitcases, paid him a tip and collected their bags. Thank heavens for the first conveyor belts!

Vintage Air Travel Photos
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19th January 1950: Trainee air hostess, Claire Swan, during a training session in a BOAC mock aircraft. (credit: Getty Images)
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A BOAC air stewardess collects equipment from the aircraft catering store before a flight from London Airport. (credit: Getty Images)
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Stewardess in Le Bourget (Seine-Saint-Denis), about 1945. (credit: Getty Images)
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A male flight attendant walks with his arms linked with two female flight attendants in front of a small plane in the 1940's. (credit: Getty Images)
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Inside the cockpit of a de Havilland 'Comet Inside the cockpit of a de Havilland 'Comet', 16 May 1962. 'This is what it is like at the controls of a Comet 4 aeroplane. On the left is John Cunningham, chief test pilot for de Havilland. (credit: Getty Images)
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English model and actress Twiggy (left) with Christopher Gable (1940 - 1998) in the cockpit of a biplane laden with chorus girls in a scene from the fim version of Sandy Wilson's musical 'The Boy Friend', directed by Ken Russell, 1971. (credit: Getty Images)
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NBC News' Foreign Correspondent James Robinson in Ocotber 1958. (credit: Getty Images)
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An elderly couple waves and smiles from an airplane ramp. (credit: Getty Images)
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Kukla the puppet, Burr Tillstrom (puppeteer), Ollie the puppet on a Northeast Airlines air mail plane. (credit: Getty Images)
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Preparing lunch on the Imperial Airways aeroplane 'Scylla', 19 November 1936. Photograph by James Jarche showing the galley on the Imperial Airways aeroplane 'Scylla'. Built by Shorts at Rochester, the 39-passenger 'Scylla' flew for the first time on 26 March 1934. Together with its sister aeroplane 'Syrinx' it was delivered to Croydon in June where it entered service almost immediately on the London to Paris route, setting new standards of comfort. Imperial Airways Limited was formed by the British government on 31 March 1924, after a government report recommended that Britain's interests in commercial air transport would be best served by merging the larger existing aircraft companies. The governments primary motivation for the merger was the need to carry mail throughout the empire. (credit: Getty Images)
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Waiter service aboard Imperial Airways 'Scylla' during its flight from London to Paris, circa 1935. (credit: Getty Images)
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Passengers enjoying a drink and a game of cards in the cabin of an Imperial Airways plane in 1936. (credit: Getty Images)
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Day cabin of an Imperial Airways flying boat, most likely of the Short Empire class, in August 1936. (credit: Getty Images)
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A sleeping berth on an Imperial Airways aircraft in March 1937. (credit: Getty Images)
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Baby travels by plane in New York In July 1945. (credit: Getty Images)
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A Douglas DC-3 airliner of Eastern Airlines ('The Great Silver Fleet') seen through the window of a viewing gallery at an airport, circa 1945. (credit: Getty Images)
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Air hostess Patricia Palley attends to passengers in the decorated cabin of a Pan-American air liner over the Atlantic on December 23, 1946. (credit: Getty Images)
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High angle view of passengers boarding an airplane, date unknown. (credit: Getty Images)
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A stewardess serving drinks whilst passengers have lunch aboard a BEA Vickers Viking passenger plane, date unknown. (credit: Getty Images)
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A man and three women wait to board a ramp at the tail of a Northwest airplane as a stewardess looks on; undated. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)
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Cabin crew adjusting seats in an airplane, date unknown. (credit: Getty Images)
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A female instructor stands at a chalkboard, pointing to a chalk diagram of an airplane while female students take notes at their desks during a stewardess training school, 1950. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)
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Luggage being unloaded from airplane, circa 1950s. (credit: Getty Images)
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A projector being fitted into a United Airlines plane for the benefit of passengers who will be shown in-flight movies, circa 1950s. (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)
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Stewardess serving passengers, date unknown. (credit: Getty Images)
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An Aer Lingus passenger plane at Dublin Airport at Collinstown near Dublin, date unknown. (credit: Getty Images)
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Man refueling a propeller airplane, date unknown. (credit: Getty Images)
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Passengers relaxing on an airline flight, circa 1950. (Photo by Keystone View Company/FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)
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American magazine publisher Hugh Hefner and his companion, American model and actor Barbi Benton, relax on a bed while a stewardess attends to them in the private quarters of Hefner's DC-9 jetliner, 'The Big Bunny' en route to Heathrow, date unknown. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)
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Hugh Hefner, American editor, publisher and founder of Playboy magazine, and his girlfriend Barbi Benton are welcomed by 'Bunny Girls' from the London Playboy Club, on their arrival at Heathrow Airport aboard his private DC 9 jetliner, which bears the Playboy logo. One Bunny Girl is wearing a Union Jack costume. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)
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BOAC stewardesses peering through the port holes of the mock-up Jumbo Jet 747 at London's Heathrow Airport during training for the introduction of transatlantic Jumbo flights, date unknown. (credit: Getty Images)
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Aerial view of five airplanes at an airport, San Francisco International Airport, San Francisco, date unknown. (credit: Getty Images)
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A Pan American World Airways flight attendant preparing in-flight meals in the galley of an airliner, circa 1950. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)
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Passengers boarding an airplane, Pittsburgh International Airport, date unknown. (credit: Getty Images)
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New York's East Side Airlines Terminal, which has 15 bus docks to take passengers to the city's various airports, circa 1955. (Photo by Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)
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A bus in the bus docks at New York's East Side Airlines Terminal. The docks are open on one side to permit exhaust fumes to escape, circa 1955. (Photo by Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)
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Passengers checking in at New York's East Side Airlines Terminal, circa 1955. (Photo by Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)
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Signs for New York's three major airports, International (Idlewild), Newark and La Guardia, at New York's East Side Airlines Terminal, which provides rapid transit between the airports and the city, circa 1955. (Photo by Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)
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Passengers checking in their baggage at New York's East Side Airlines Terminal, circa 1955. (Photo by Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)
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Passengers checking in their baggage at New York's East Side Airlines Terminal, circa 1955. (Photo by Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)
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New York's East Side Airlines Terminal which operates on a 24 hour basis to provide transportation to every flight leaving from the city's various airports, around 1955. (Photo by Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)
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Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly coming off the plane from Los Angeles at Idlewild Airport, near New York, between 1950 and 1955. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)
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Some of the TWA (Trans World Airline) air hostesses selected to attend a course at the TWA headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri. They have been instructed in grooming, charm and poise, reading, conversational French and entertainment, and received vital inoculations, date unknown. (Photo by Bert Garai/Keystone Features/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)
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A TWA pilot and stewardess greets the passengers coming off the plane, ca.1950s, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Marsh Photographers/Cincinnati Museum Center/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)
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A portable altar used to deliver mass to passengers and crew who may have missed mass at church at Idlewild Airport, date unknown. (Photo by Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images)
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Lufthansa flight attendants Jutta Kaemmerer (seated left) and Mascha Junge being served by Pan Am's Jerry Rand and Gertrude Vasel at the Pan American World Airways stewardess school in Long Island circa 1960. (Photo by Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)
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Flight attendant serving coffee to passengers seated in a lounge aboard a Braniff International airplane, late 1960s. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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American singer Tony Bennett serenades TWA air hostess Gabriele Lehman prior to flying from New York to London on April 14, 1961. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)
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Heathrow Airport in London, July 1967. (Photo by Tim Graham/Fox Photos/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)
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An Esso truck refuelling a Pan-American aircraft, July 1967. (Photo by Tim Graham/Fox Photos/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)
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Faye Dunaway posing on the boarding dock of a Pan-American plane before departing for London for a vacation, John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York City in November 1967. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)
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The interior design of the new L-1011 jetliner passenger cabin with overhead luggage compartments, August 1968. (Photo by Alan Band/Fox Photos/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)
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Stewardesses on Southwest Airlines in Texas stand in front of planes belonging to the airline. (Photo by Alan Band/Keystone/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)
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Stewardesses working for Southwest Airlines of Texas must be able to wear hot pants and kinky leather boots or they don't get the job. In accordance with the airline's motto, 'sex sells seats' interviewees are selected on the strength of their legs and their face. Drinks served during flights have names such as 'Passion Punch' and 'Love Potion'. Photo circa 1972. (Photo by Alan Band/Keystone/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)
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Muslim passengers waiting for flights at Terminal 3, Heathrow Airport, London, facing Mecca for prayers, March 1977 (Photo by Graham Morris/Evening Standard/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)
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A line-up of some of the air stewardesses who attend to passengers on board the supersonic jet the 'Concorde', each one from a different airline. They are standing in front of a scale model of the aircraft. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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A Pan American (Pan Am) airhostess serving champagne in the first class cabin of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, date unknown. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)
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A steward and stewardess serving first-class passengers with drinks and refreshments on board a Boeing 747, date unknown. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
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Passengers relaxing on the sleeper seats in the new Comet 4 during a demonstration flight at Hatfield. The plane, which is fitted out in accordance with an interior decor scheme designed for BOAC aircraft by Gaby Schreiber, flew from New York to London in under six and a half hours, date unknown. (Photo by Douglas Miller/Keystone/Getty Images)
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British European Airways latest commercial air liner is the Vickers V 700 Viscount, seen here at Northolt airport, date unknown. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
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A lounge compartment on an airliner, designed by Henry Dreyfuss, date unknown. (Photo by Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images)
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A passenger in the ladies' powder room on board the world's first jet airliner service. The Comet flight is bound for South Africa; date unknown. (Photo by PNA Rota/Getty Images)
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Stewards serving passengers on board an aeroplane, date unknown. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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