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…

To the Air

New Yorker writers in the 1920s by and large displayed a resistance to enthusiasm when they looked around at the changing the world, but when it came to advancements in aviation, they tended to drop the casual pose and get all dreamy-eyed.

June 2, 1928 cover by Sue Williams.

Such was the case with even a clear-headed writer like Morris Markey, who in his “A Reporter at Large” column looked at our progress in aviation. Public interest in air travel grew dramatically after Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 Atlantic crossing, as did the expansion of air mail and passenger service and the growth of private plane ownership. As Markey noted in this opening paragraph, for all the advances in American aviation, the Europeans were well ahead in establishing regular passenger service, as it has become “commonplace”:

FORERUNNER…In 1920s the Boeing Model 40 served as a U.S. mail plane. The single-engined biplane was also the first aircraft built by the Boeing company to carry passengers. Note the pilot was still seated in the open air, behind the passenger compartment. Many early pilots were unhappy when the next generation of planes forced them into an enclosed cockpit. (Boeing)

To get some sense of European (and specifically German) aviation superiority, look no further than the Dornier Do-X, a massive seaplane developed by the Germans in the mid-1920s that began regular passenger service in July 1929. While America’s biggest planes could carry 12 to 18 passengers, the spacious and luxurious Dornier Do-X could comfortably seat 70 to 100 passengers and included a dining salon, smoking lounge and wet bar. A few months after its first flight the Do-X broke a world record by carrying 169 passengers—astonishing when one considers only 25 years had passed since the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk.

BEHEMOTH…169 people flew aboard the Dornier Do-X on October 21, 1929. The plane’s hull was made of aluminum, but the sides were made of heavy duty linen cloth coated with aluminum paint. (Ullstein Bild)
MAKING HISTORY…Excited passengers—169 of them—await take-off on October 21, 1929. Powered by a dozen engines, take-off weight for the Do-X was more than 61 tons. Note the crew members atop the craft manually turning the propellers—all 12 of them—to circulate the oil in the engines prior to take-off. (Ullstein Bild)
LEGROOM NOT OPTIONAL…The dining salon (left) and a passenger compartment in the Dornier Do-X. (Ullstein Bild)
MODEST, BUT NICE…Over in America, the 1928 Boeing Model 80 carried passengers in a spacious cabin appointed with leather upholstery, reading lamps, forced-air ventilation, and hot and cold running water. The first version carried 12 people, and it was followed by a larger, 18-passenger Model 80A, which made its first flight on Sept. 12, 1929. The plane’s fuselage was made of welded-steel tubing covered with fabric, and its wooden wingtips were removable so the airplane could fit into the primitive hangars along its route. (Boeing)
Interior of the Boeing Model 80. Ellen Church, a registered nurse, convinced Boeing managers that women could work as stewards, so nurses serving aboard the Model 80A became aviation’s first female flight attendants. (Boeing)

Markey noted in his article the growing interest in commuter flights among business executives. What seemed like a high demand to Markey was an average of three commuter flights a day.

Markey also lamented New York’s lag in building up passenger service, especially when air travel was growing leaps and bounds in the Midwest and West, and especially in rival Chicago:

THERE HE GOES…Harry Guggenheim and Charles Lindbergh step off a Western Air Express Fokker F-10 in 1928. Diplomat, publisher and philanthropist, Guggenheim provided funding to mail carrier Western Air Express in 1927 in an effort to create a “model airline” that was safe, dependable and economically feasible. By 1930 Western was the nation’s largest airline. It was short-lived, however; in 1930 Postmaster General William Folger Brown forced it to merge with Transcontinental Air Transport, creating Transcontinental and Western Airlines, or TWA. (Boston Public Library)
NO TSA LINES HERE…Passengers board a Western Air Express Fokker F-10 in the late 1920s. The Fokker F-10 was called “The Queen of the Model Airline,” but it fell out of favor after a much-publicized March 31, 1931 crash in Kansas that killed eight people, including football coaching legend Knute Rockne. (
NO FRILLS…Passenger compartment of a Fokker F-10. (
HERE’S LUCY…Actress Lucille Ball was all smiles after a flight on a Western Air Express Fokker F-10. (

Markey also noted the modest number of planes in private hands, but expected private ownership to increase dramatically in the coming months:

TIN GOOSE…Henry Ford briefly got into the aviation business with his company’s popular Ford Trimotor. Dubbed the “Tin Goose,” it was the first all-metal, multi-engine transport in the United States and the first plane designed primarily to carry passengers (12) rather than mail. It was the  first plane to be used for transcontinental passenger service, as well as the first plane to fly over the South Pole. The Great Depression would end the plane’s short but successful run—a total of 199 were produced. (
BE YOUR OWN LINDBERGH…Looking for your own set of wings? The 1929 Cessna Model AW was just around the corner. (

Although Markey lamented the slow growth of New York aviation, he was nevertheless dazzled by the “ships” taking to the skies at Curtiss Field.

Jumping ahead a couple of years, New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno offered this view of passenger flight, the passengers in this case a bunch of silly toffs (April 12, 1930).

And back to the June 2, 1928 issue, we find this ad for Rolls Royce that offered a vision of a future airliner—in the year 1948. Since the artist had no clue what the future would hold, he conjured up this contraption that looked like a streamlined ark attached to a huge zeppelin.

And just for kicks (and contrast), this ad for Lincoln was all about tradition, except for the nice typographical flourish on the letter “L” —a definite nod to Bauhaus style.

And if you thought novelty in our gadgets is a fairly recent thing, check out these portable Kodak cameras that were available in five colors. From automobiles to typewriters, manufacturers in the 1920s were discovering that color distinguished their products and even drove demand (click image to enlarge).

Advertisers could also create demand by appealing to readers’ cravings for status. The following ad for a Lord and Burnham greenhouse is an especially egregious example of the use of status shaming to sell a product. Note how the foursome in the illustration, presumably all greenhouse owners, look at the man without a greenhouse as though he’s a child molester or worse.

Before Green Eggs and Ham

In 1928 ads for Flit insecticide began to appear in the New Yorker, illustrated by none other than Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel. This is the first Flit ad to appear in the magazine, in the June 2, 1928 issue:

In the 1920s people didn’t seem too concerned about the toxicity of the products they used (for example, we’ve seen Lysol used as a feminine douche). Although the Flit ads aimed to be humorous, it still seems odd to imply that one might gargle with the insecticide. As we shall see, subsequent Flit ads will show the product being sprayed indiscriminately over food, children, pets etc.

Taking a Shot at the Babe

The cartoonist I. Klein had some fun with the hyperbole often attached to the athletic feats of the Sultan of Swat:

And finally, Peter Arno looked at murder among the upper classes:

Next Time: The Russians Are Coming…