We can learn much about the history and evolution of technology, business, geography, fashions, and design by studying the advertising materials of companies. The passenger transportation industries have produced some of the most vivid posters, ads, and brochures.
The railroads were heavy advertisers, even seeking immigrants from Europe to settle the American West. Before the rise of airlines, a typical poster might look like this one from the “Burlington Route,” replete with hand-drawn illustrations and Victorian type fonts. Today the Burlington is a key component of America’s biggest railroad, the BNSF, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.
Following in the footsteps of the railroads, the airlines issued timetables or schedules and gave them away by the millions. The timetable brochures shown below, for the “Big Five” American airlines of the time, are from the early 1930s. Still full of manual illustrations, the emphasis was on the technological wonder of the industry: the “modern” airliner.
Blue and yellow seem to be the colors of the day, with only Eastern going with red, white, and blue. The other four airlines put the company name at the top, none more boldly and clearly than American, known from the earliest days as good marketers. Note that American also used the wings of an Eagle, a tradition that has continued. (See the history of American Airlines here.)
Among US-based airlines, Pan American had virtually exclusive authority to fly the routes outside the United States, starting with Pan Am’s flying boats which stopped along the coastlines and ports of the Caribbean and Latin America. Given that it “owned” the international routes, Pan Am was prohibited from carrying passengers between any two cities within the United States.
Safety was such a great concern back then that the airlines emphasized how great their planes were, sometimes even promoting their reliable engines, as shown in the United matchbook here:
By the mid-1930s, things had changed. The Douglas DC-3 all-metal airliner swept the industry and was flown by all the domestic airlines. Photographs (alongside illustrations) of DC-3’s dominated the timetable covers below. Also shown are Pan Am’s giant flying boats, now circling the Pacific in addition to their Latin American routes. Red, white, and blue won the color wars.
Inside these brochures, alongside the actual flight schedules were the route maps of each airline. United, in the upper right corner below, got the northern transcontinental route, from New York to San Francisco via Chicago. Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA) had a middle transcontinental route via Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Kansas City, while American had a coast-to-coast route that bent southward on its way west. All three served the very busy New York to Chicago route. Eastern was the only big airline dependent on north-south traffic, up and down the East Coast. Note that these maps are accurately based on actual maps and geography, with no distortions or short-cut route lines.
The timetables below are from the late 1930s and the 1940s. Since these airlines continued to use the same type of aircraft, the public already knew about their reliability, so the pictures of planes have disappeared. In their place, each airline focused on its logo, its corporate identity. Branding became more important to the air carriers.
The late 1950s witnessed the peak – and end – of the propeller airplane era. The largest, most powerful prop planes ever built, the Douglas DC-7 and Lockheed Constellation, led the fleets in the mid-1950s. The year 1959 saw the announcement of jets, which would revolutionize the industry and global trade and communication. Emphasis returned to the aircraft. The American timetables below are from 1954 and 1959, the United timetables from 1955 and 1959. American went with the Boeing 707 while United launched the Douglas DC-8. Boeing went on to dominate in the battle of the jets.
More late 1950s: Transcontinental and Western Air was renamed Trans World Airlines after owner Howard Hughes gained international routes to compete with Pan Am after World War II. TWA took pride in its fleet of beautiful Lockheed Constellations, then began to buy Boeing jets. The much smaller National Airlines, serving the Northeast and Florida, was run by Lewis Maytag, Jr., of the Iowa washing machine family. National was the first airline to offer domestic jet service, while Pan Am first premiered jets on international routes.
The 1960s may have been the “high corporate style” design era. Continuing their battles for consumer attention, logos and corporate identities took center stage. No planes, no old type fonts, just strong, simple graphic designs dominate the 1960s timetables shown below.
This new cleaner look was also reflected in the route maps in the timetables by the 1960s and 1970s, as shown below. Straight lines and loopy lines replaced the realistic geographies of earlier eras. Route systems became far more extensive and complex.
Of course the function of these brochures was to help people figure out which flights worked best for them. Throughout this era, timetables contained a vertical column for each flight, with the airport stops listed along the left side of the timetable from top to bottom. The top of each column showed the flight number and other information like which days of the week it flew and the type of aircraft on that run. These schedules took some skill to use quickly, but frequent travelers and travel agents knew them inside out. These schedules are for American and United:
In the 1960s, the timetables kept this system, but often added easy-to-use “quick reference” schedules for the most important routes, as shown in the American timetable on the left below. On the right is shown a later American schedule using a new system, page after page filled with long lists of flights. Each line contained the flight number and information on airplane type, frequency, number of stops, meals served, and other information. This became the standard method of presentation and ended the era of vertical columns for each flight.
The 1970s witnessed more change in timetable design: the heavy use of bold photography on the covers. All but Pan Am emphasize the latest technology: jumbo jets, led by the huge Boeing 747 shown on the TWA cover:
These design approaches remained largely the same after the 1970s. By the time the airlines published their timetables in the 1990s, shown below, they seem very “corporate” but without the design flair of the 1960s. Because the airlines had grown so much, all spreading around the globe, these timetables were much thicker than the old ones, and had fat, squared bindings. Most importantly, the names of the key airlines had changed. Over time, Pan Am, TWA, Eastern, Braniff, and many others disappeared. Formerly smaller airlines Delta, Northwest, and Continental became important. (See animated charts on the rise and fall of our airlines here.)
By the twenty-first century, the Internet replaced timetables as the easiest way to pick flights. The airlines stopped printing timetables, so these items of ephemera now become artifacts of history. Transportation literature collectors like your writer cherish these old brochures for their ability to tell us history in a vivid, visual manner.
That visual history is also shown in posters, magazine ads, and even television ads. Each of the images below was meant to inspire and encourage travel and tourism.
TWA’s classic posters are treasured by collectors.
The much smaller original Delta promoted its route across the South from Atlanta to Dallas.
These great ads and posters were not limited to the United States. Britain’s Imperial Airways, predecessor of today’s British Airways, created beautiful posters.
The oldest of the world’s big airlines, KLM Royal Dutch Air Lines, co-operated on routes with Sweden’s ABA, a predecessor of today’s SAS (Scandinavian Airlines System).
We conclude this visual trip through history with a look at the April 2022 home pages of the three big legacy carriers, American, Delta, and United. American and Delta use pictures that reflect the beginning of the summer travel season, vacation time. None of the three emphasize their route networks, their aircraft, or their logos. All obsess on their frequent flyer programs as they strive to intensify customer loyalty. Free points!! Free miles!!!
No review of US airline history would be complete without mention of that little latecomer from Texas, Southwest Airlines, arguably the most successful US airline over the last fifty years. Not only is their website picture seasonally appropriate, it is urgent, promoting the next holiday on the calendar, Mother’s Day. And of course, like the others, you can earn bonus flyer points if you sign up now or apply for a credit card!!!
American Business History Center