The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
First Lady in Flight
One of the things I love about working at the Smithsonian is spending my days typing keywords into our search engines and seeing what kind of images will pop up. In my recent travel-themed photo browsing, I came across this photo of Eleanor Roosevelt knitting on a plane. Blowing up the original photo allowed me to read the inset yellow caption box on the photo:
“Women, as well as men, should look upon traveling by air as upon any other mode of transportation," Eleanor Roosevelt from her popular column, My Day, courtesy United Feature Syndicate.
A bit of sleuth work helped me discover that this photo was originally taken by Eleanor Roosevelt’s son, John, and that Mrs. Roosevelt allowed it to be used in a national magazine advertisement by the Air Transport Association that promoted flying among women.
We have to remember that at this time, flying on an airplane was not only considered an adventure, it was considered by many to be extremely dangerous (a Journal of Marketing article complained that many wives “[wouldn’t] let their husbands fly”). Convincing the public that men, let alone women (!) should travel by plane was a serious struggle.
Eleanor Roosevelt was an exception. Travel, especially plane travel, was a huge part of her career, and eventually helped establish her as a journalist and important world figure. Because FDR’s polio limited his ability to travel extensively, Eleanor became his fact-finder and his public presence. Following his inauguration in 1933, appearances on behalf of the administration took her abroad and to almost every state in the country. She was the first president’s wife to travel by plane (and without her husband), and the first First Lady to write a newspaper column. In fact, her My Day column often extolled the virtues of air travel, convincing readers in a casual, no-nonsense tone that airplanes were safe time-savers. The public had never encountered a First Lady like Roosevelt, and though she caught some grief from the press for her constant travel and her vocal presence, there was great public admiration for her. In a time when apart from movie stars women had no visible presence in the mass media, Eleanor Roosevelt served as a role model—a woman who made it okay for women to publicly participate in what had typically been a man’s world.
Interestingly, the only other photo advertisement or air travel we have from the same time period pictures a stewardess extolling the virtues of Ivory Soap Flakes in keeping her stockings as good as new. While it must have been courageous and atypical for a woman in the late 1930s to be working as a stewardess, the advertisement focuses on her role in “serving meals, making up berths, and taking care of children” rather than taking an active role in traveling or seeing the world. Mrs. Roosevelt’s photo, as tame as it may seem, is a remarkable counterpoint, and an appeal for the independent woman to take to the air!