At the dawn of commercial air travel, alumna Ellen Church convinced Boeing to take a chance on her as the world’s first stewardess. The rest is history.
By Tim Brady
Late in 1929, Ellen Church (B.S. ’26, B.S. ’36), a 26-year-old recent graduate of the University of Minnesota School of Nursing, spied an advertisement in the window of a downtown San Francisco storefront. Church, who worked at a nearby hospital, was window-shopping over her lunch hour when she saw the ad from a company called Boeing for flights to Chicago that would take just 20 hours. She had a couple of reasons to pause: She grew up in the small town of Cresco, Iowa, not that far from Chicago, and the thought of those 20-hour flights was pretty tempting for home visits; and she also had a deep interest in flying, having earned a pilot’s license after moving from Minneapolis to San Francisco.
So she went inside, where she met Steve Stimpson, Boeing’s regional manager. The two started to chat about flying and the recently established and quickly growing airline business. Ever since she was a girl in Cresco, watching World War I pilots training at a nearby field, she had been enchanted by flight. Church soon began to make a habit of stopping in at Boeing on her lunch hour strolls, striking up a solid relationship with Stimpson. She hinted that she might like to fly for a company like Boeing one day. Stimpson discouraged her—her license was fine for small planes, he said, but she didn’t have the sort of experience necessary to pilot a Boeing airliner cross-country.
Church asked about other roles with the company, and Stimpson happened to mention that the airline was considering the possibility of adding stewards to its flights. Airline copilots had been given the duty of serving passengers meals and coffee up to that point, but as plane size grew and more passengers began filling seats, those chores became too much for the copilots, who were also expected to occupy seats next to the pilot and perform flying duties.
At the time, planes flew at slow speeds and low altitudes—100 to 120 miles per hour, compared with today’s speeds of 500 to 600 miles per hour—and about 5,000 feet, a far cry from modern cruising altitudes of more than 35,000 feet. Thus, the flights were as rocky as the most prominent mountain chain they flew over, making airsickness a near constant presence and adding even more work for the poor copilot. A German airline had been experimenting with hiring a few stewards to fly on its commercial liners, but no company in the United States had made the same move.
As Stimpson described the burdens placed on copilots, Church’s response was nearly instantaneous: Why not hire women to do it? Specifically, Stimpson recalled in a speech at a function 25 years later celebrating the birth of the stewardess profession, she suggested women like her, with the training of a nurse who could provide comfort and care to often fearful passengers traveling on rocking, rolling flights of up to 20 hours. The fact that Church knew how to fly and loved it, and was only 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighed less than 115 pounds, enhanced the logic of her suggestion: She could easily and comfortably navigate the aisles and low cabin ceilings of Boeing’s cramped commercial liners while adding only a modest weight to the plane’s load. Furthermore, Stimpson recalled, Church was bright, knowledgeable, and had an open and sunny disposition.
Stimpson quickly agreed that Church’s idea was a good one, but he needed permission from company headquarters in Cheyenne, Wyoming, about halfway between the West Coast and Chicago. Stimpson wrote to the brass asking for permission to hire a crew of stewardesses. After some shock at the request—there were the usual trepidations of the day about hiring women for anything, and fears of placing young women in air travel jeopardy—they granted permission for a three-month trial, and Stimpson immediately hired Church as the world’s first stewardess. He named her crew chief and she set about hiring eight other stewardesses. They chose the name stewardess over hostess, courierette, pursorette, airess, skipper, and aidette. Church designed a green wool uniform for the women, with accompanying tam o’shanter cap and black oxford shoes with a sensible heel.
Using her own resume and physical type as a model, Church found and hired four candidates in San Francisco and three more in Chicago. Within months, the group of women, who would subsequently become famous in air travel annals as the “Original Eight,” was ready to fly to Cheyenne for training and publicity photos.
Each new attendant was given a manual of instructions that described her duties: punching tickets, attending to sick passengers, and serving meals. There were 12 different stops on the flight from San Francisco to Chicago, and the “stews,” as they came to be known, had to be familiar with local railroad schedules so they could help passengers figure out where and when catch their trains after their flights.
They had other chores that were unique to the Boeing craft on which they flew. Early airliners had windows that could open and close, which meant that stewardesses had to remind passengers to keep their hands inside the cabin and smokers not to pitch their matches and cigarette butts out the windows. In warm weather, they also needed occasionally to swat flies that would hitch rides in the plane.
The Boeing airliner seated 12 passengers, with one stewardess per plane. One peculiar duty required her to accompany each passenger to the plane’s lavatory, which was located at the rear of the cabin behind one of two identical doors: one opened into the commode and the other to a quick rush of air and a 5,000 foot drop.
Stewardesses were an instant success. Boeing made the three-month experiment permanent, and other fledgling airlines adopted the role and began hiring.
Church’s idea that stewardesses should have some kind of nursing training prevailed as industry practice up until World War II. In fact, Stimpson claimed that hospitals on the West Coast became leery of airline companies poaching some of their best young nurses for a more adventurous life in the air. By 1937, Time magazine reported that due to the popularity of air stewardesses, railroad companies began hiring women to serve as attendants on various commuter lines along the East Coast.
Church’s pioneering career was cut short in 1932, when she was hurt in a car accident that prevented her continued work in the air. She returned to the University of Minnesota to continue her studies, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing education in 1936. She was also active in the University’s Flying Club and the Business Women’s Club.
From Minneapolis she moved to Wisconsin and served as supervisor of pediatric nursing at Milwaukee County Hospital until the onset of World War II. During the war, Church once again took to the air, serving as a captain in the Army Nurse Corps. She cared for soldiers from December 1942 through the remainder of the war, nursing in every theater of combat from North Africa, through Sicily, to England, France, and Germany. She helped evacuate soldiers from Tunisia and Italy and trained evacuation nurses for D-Day. She earned seven Bronze Service Stars and the prestigious Air Medal for her work.
After the war, Church served as a hospital administrator in Elgin, Illinois, earned a master’s degree in nursing from the University of Chicago, and in 1952 was hired as the administrator of a hospital in Terre Haute, Indiana. There, she met and married a bank president, Leonard Marshall, and the two lived happily in Terre Haute. In 1965, on a morning horseback ride, Church was thrown, and died in surgery.
A year later, United Airlines, the successor company to Boeing Transport, presented Union Hospital in Terre Haute with a check for $25,000 in the memory of Ellen Church Marshall. The company president also dedicated a wing of the United Airlines Stewardesses training school in suburban Chicago in Ellen Church’s name. Church’s bust sits outside the school. Multiple copies of the sculpture were created and presented to training facilities at airline companies around the world as a salute to the industry’s first flight attendant. The airport in Cresco, Iowa, where years before Church had first fallen in love with aviation, was eventually named Ellen Church Field in her honor. It bears her name to this day.