The new book from Callisto Publishers, "Pan Am: History, Design and Identity," could only have been made about an airline as influential and beloved as Pan Am. The airline not only developed routes and communications for commercial flights designed for people, not cargo, it also forged an indelible visual identity that spurred Americans to travel far from home.
The large-format book offers a meticulous and detailed history of the airline, beginning in the 1920s. But since the history of the airline is tied to America's rise as a world power, the text also covers much more than airline routes and destinations. Author Matthias Hühne draws clear lines between Pan Am's dominance and U.S. history.
There are also hundreds of images from the earliest flights to the Pan Am hotels and lounges to beautifully designed travel posters of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. I've selected a few that will give you a taste of why the 1950s through the 1980s are called the "golden age" of air travel.
High design from the start
In the 1930s, Pan Am grew from its upstart roots as a highly competitive airmail carrier, taking over other smaller airlines that were primarily carrying mail. Its expansion wasn't just good for founder Juan Trippe's business. It was good for America's international relations, as well. According to book author Hühne, "Expanding rapidly in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the airline actively began to portray aviation as benign and friendly means of promoting good and close relationships between the United States and its neighbors to the south, in line with policies of the Hoover Administration, and ahead of the Good Neighbor policy officially adopted by the Roosevelt administration in 1933."
Climb aboard the Clipper!
Pan Am's biggest competition in the 1930s came from trains and boats, and throughout the 1930s, Pan Am's planes were called "flying boats." Travel culture was different then too, with the journey to a destination almost as important as the destination itself. Those who could afford to travel had the time and money to spend, and the "Clipper" planes (yes, named after the boats) could only travel around 1,000 miles before they needed refueling. Making the flight from San Francisco to Hawaii was a huge step for the airline. And then, if you wanted to go to Asia, you'd need to stop at Midway, Wake and Guam islands before getting to Manila. So voyages by plane were more like boats, with days spent "cruising" and nights on the ground.
In the case of the Pacific route via Midway and Guam, the necessary hotels had to be built by the airline — with everything from building materials to bed sheets to personnel brought to the islands via boat. Travelers soon followed.
Flying was fabulous
It's fascinating (and a little depressing, if you've ever spent 14 hours in a cramped economy seat) to read about how passenger planes to Hawaii in the late 1930s included separate lounge and private compartments, and also served meals at tables set with real linens. Tables were set up for bridge-playing between meals, and at night each passenger slept in a bed complete with sheets and blankets. Of course, the flights were much more expensive, about $10,600 round-trip one you adjust for inflation.
As commercial travel continued through the 1940s and 50s, prices came down, but air travel's classy reputation continued — and expanded. Pan Am built destination hotels and airport lounges, like the one above, to create a seamless travel experience for passengers.
Extra legroom for all
By 1970 (when this ad was one half of a spread in a magazine), flying was less expensive and less stylish, but still a lot more comfortable than it is today, as evidenced by the size of the seats and the legroom in the image above. Most people were traveling for leisure, and trips abroad with the whole family were affordable for middle-class parents. On board, you could expect meals with several courses and free wine or other alcohol, while upper-class seating included second-level lounges (sometimes complete with a piano player and a baby grand) for socializing.
Bigger planes, like the 747, were rarely full to capacity, meaning it was easy to snag a whole row to yourself in economy.
Bon voyage (and appetit!)
Before personal entertainment systems, food was a several-hour-long distraction for travelers. In the early days of flying, airlines were competing with the sumptuous meals available on ships, which had full kitchens, so chefs for airlines had to be creative. In the 1930s and 1940s, meals would be partly cooked before flight, then chilled. Cooking would be finished in electric ovens on board, so meals tended to be meats in wine sauces, paired with fresh salads that didn't require cooking.
Later, famous restaurants like Maxim's in Paris would provide all the meals for Pan Am's Atlantic routes up to six courses, including cheese and dessert courses and plenty of cocktails. In both upper and lower classes of flight, meals often came with wine pairings, regional wines or specialty drinks.
Selling the travel dream
I learned from this new book that the years I flew on Pan Am — the late 1970s and 1980s — were considered the decline of the company, which makes sense as the storied air carrier ran its last flight in December 1991. Even though the company was failing, Pan Am continued advertising its hundreds of destinations around the world, and people kept buying tickets. My grandmother's several round-the-world tickets brought her to Europe, India, Malaysia and eventually, to Australia. A combination of factors forced the company into bankruptcy, but I had no idea this was going on — Pan Am was my favorite airline when I was a kid when I flew from New York City to Sydney, Australia, and back again (via Hawaii or Tahiti).
Going, going, gone are the glory days
“While my purpose in initiating this project was to document and analyze corporate identity aspects of Pan Am,” author Hühne said in a release, “I still recall very well the awe I felt when, as a young German boy in 1974, I entered a Pan Am Boeing 747 on my first flight to the United States. Everything seemed so perfect. The huge aircraft and the friendly, beautiful flight attendants appeared like a showpiece of the American Dream, flying around the globe; a gentle demonstration of the values and opportunities brought about by freedom and entrepreneurship.”
Pan Am's legacy continues
We may never again see an airline with the history and style that Pan Am had, but the airline will live on in the memories of many who flew on it. And we will probably never go back to the days when a kid who loved airplanes would be given a set of wings to pin on her blouse and an invitation to visit the pilots in the cockpit during the flight. (I remember this being pretty routine on all the longer flights I took as a kid). Though perhaps with increasing fuel economy, alternative fuels and other improvements, we may start getting a little interior plane space back so we don't detest the journey. I know I'm not the only one who finds flying at least a little magical and wishes airlines would show that side of their business more often.
Want to go all-out on savoring vintage travel? There's a premium edition of the Pan Am book available for $900. It's packed in a handcrafted collector’s case designed in Berlin, printed on thick-stock Fedrigoni paper and contains additional images and Pantone colors and finishes not included in the standard edition.