The Big Bird

I wonder what the French or the British thought when, in 1929 — just a little over a decade after the Great War — their former enemies were able to fly a 56-ton aircraft, carrying 169 passengers, into the skies above Switzerland.

Sept. 12, 1931 cover by Helen Hokinson.

And I wonder what some Americans thought in 1931 when this same aircraft toured Europe and Africa before breezing across the Atlantic — just four years after Lindbergh’s famous flight — and made publicity stops from Brazil to New York.

Why, you might ask, did the WWI Allies allow Germany to build something that could easily be converted into a long-range bomber? The Treaty of Versailles forbade the development of such an aircraft, but the German Transport Ministry circumvented the treaty by building the Dornier Do-X on the Swiss side of Lake Constance. It was above this lake the Do-X made its 1929 record flight with 169 passengers and crew, including nine stowaways.

A New York visit by the Do-X was the event of fall 1931, and Morris Markey was there to file a story for his “Reporter at Large” column. Markey joined 71 other passengers on a flight around the city:

A CLOSER LOOK…Morris Markey could not comprehend the sheer scale of the Do-X until his launch approached this “monstrous craft” with a 157-foot wingspan. Gazing up at the underside of the wing, Markey wrote that it looked like “the roof of some factory building, lifted off to serve a new, fantastic purpose.” (Mashable)

Conceived by German airplane designer Claude Dornier in 1924, the flying ship was launched for its first test flight on July 12, 1929, and later that year Popular Science reported on “The Mightiest Airplane”…

At a time when American and British planes carried no more than 20 or so passengers, the Do-X seemed like something out of a sci-fi-magazine…

DREAM BECOMES REALITY. Although an image of pure fantasy, this July 1922 Popular Science magazine seemed to anticipate the Do-X. (Google Books)
LITTLE COUSINS…These American and British planes were seen as giants until the Do-X came to town. At top, an American-built Fokker F.32; below, although smaller than the Do-X, the Handley Page H.P. 42 held the distinction of being the largest airliner in regular use when it was introduced in 1931. The plane was a workhorse for Britain’s Imperial Airways, keeping the island nation connected to its vast empire. (Wikipedia)

Markey described the Do-X’s sumptuous interior, decked out like an ocean liner with plush chairs and mahogany tables. He was also allowed into the plane’s cockpit and chartroom, where tables “were covered with charts of the New York waters.” Behind the chartroom Markey also took in the stunning sight of men moving within the hollow wings, maintaining the plane’s twelve engines while it was in flight:

FLY THE FRIENDLY SKIES, REALLY…Interior views of the Do-X show armchairs arranged in “careless circles,” a far cry from the spine crushers we experience today. (Mashable)
NO SEATBELTS?…British journalist Lady Grace Drummond Hay and Hearst correspondent Karl von Wiegand enjoy a flight aboard the Dornier DO-X in November 1930. (Pinterest)

Markey concluded his column with this lyrical tribute to the Do-X:

A STEAMPUNK’S DREAM…at top, the Dornier Do-X cockpit; below, a machinist in the engine room of the flying boat. (Mashable)

In the previous issue of the New Yorker (Sept. 5), E.B. White filed this report about the Do-X and its visiting delegation. I was surprised that Markey, and not White, took the flight around the city, given White’s unbridled enthusiasm for flying machines.

To get some idea of what it was like to fly on the Do-X, here is a short film from YouTube. The first three minutes (with some weird lounge-y background music) feature a 1929 flight during which the DO-X carried 169 passengers — a world record not broken for 20 years. The New York visit is at the 3:00 mark.

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Back to Earth

Our feet firmly back on terra firma, we turn to the New Yorker’s review of the new River House on the East River, where residents once parked the yachts they would use to sail to their Long Island estates. This luxury was short-lived thanks to Robert Moses, who reigned over public works and plowed the East River Drive (now FDR Drive) between River House and the river, effectively ending any practical use of the docks.

FUN WHILE IT LASTED…Top left, advertisement in the Sept. 12, 1931 New Yorker announcing the new River House. At top, River House around the time of its completion, and below, a view of the short-lived docks. (Museum of the City of New York)

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Something’s Fishy

In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White reveled in his powers of observation, having spotted the same model, Peggy Fish, in ads for competing cigarette brands:

DOUBLE TAKE…A 1931 Chesterfield ad (left) referred to by E.B. White featuring Peggy Fish, who apparently was a go-to model for fashion magazines in the 1920s and 30s; at right, Fish modeling a dress in the January 1928 issue of Vogue, photo by Edward Steichen. Bottom image, another version of the ad, which appeared in the Oct. 3 issue of the New Yorker. (April 1931 Cosmopolitan via Stanford University/Conde Nast)

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From Our Advertisers

We kick off our advertising section with this two-page spread for Lux Toilet Soap. What is curious about this ad is not that Billie Burke (1884 – 1970) looked great at 39, but that she looked great at 47, her actual age when she made this endorsement for Lux. You would think the greater age would be an even better selling point for the soap makers, but either they decided 39 sounded better or maybe she just fooled Lux, and everyone else, about her true age…

BROADWAY BILLIE…at left, Billie Burke with her husband, Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, in a 1927 portrait by Edward Steichen that was featured in Vanity Fair. Burke never remarried after Ziegfeld’s death in 1932; at right, Burke as Glinda the Good Witch with Judy Garland and Toto in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. (Pinterest)

…fall fashions abounded, as did ads for hats — these two were from different advertisers on separate pages…apparently hats looked good on women displayed in angled formations…

…Alcoa was expanding its market for aluminum products with a line of chairs it touted as being “in perfect taste” (note the snotty-looking butler at right)…my parents had a set of these, relegated to the basement as knock-about furniture…

…I love these ads by Rex Cole that elevate the lowly icebox to heroic heights (perhaps this is how Ayn Rand viewed her kitchen)…

…and we move on to our cartoons, where famed gold digger Peggy Joyce is the focus of a Peter Arno cartoon (Joyce was married six times, and claimed she was engaged about fifty times). After publishing a ghostwritten “tell-all,” Men, Marriage and Me in 1930, Joyce purportedly wrote a column for a spicy New York rag about various scandals in New York and London. It is possible or even likely these columns were also ghostwritten: after meeting Joyce in the late 1920s, Harpo Marx concluded she was illiterate…

ILLITERARY?…Peggy Joyce, circa 1922. (

E. McNerney showed us a girl with little appreciation for her silver spoon…

Richard Decker found humor in the desert sands…

Barbara Shermund was back with some juicy gossip…

…and we close with two by William Steig…the awkward suitor…

…and some questionable bedside mannerisms…

Next Time: From Stage to Screen…

Published by

David O

I read and write about history from the perspective that history is not some artifact from the past but a living, breathing condition we inhabit every moment of our lives, or as William Faulkner once observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I read original source materials, such as every issue of The New Yorker, not only as a way to understand a time from a particular perspective, but to also use the source as an aggregator of various historic events. I welcome comments, criticisms, corrections and insights as I stumble along through the century.

5 thoughts on “The Big Bird”

  1. The do-x looks like something Bruce Mccall would think up for National Lampoon.
    I guess the fridges were called Monitor Tops because of their resemblance to the USS Monitor.Many people held on to their Monitor Tops well into the 1970s.The problem was they had to be periodically defrosted like they all did back then.A real pain.But the works were up top where it was cooler and had to work less and therefore use less electricity.Now theyre all down below.No more unsightly works to have to look at.I wonder what became of the Rex Cole bldg. in Brooklyn.It had a huge Monitor Top on the roof.Probably turned into yup apartments by now like everything else these days


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