Artifact Spotlight: Mercury Airlines—A Los Angeles Aviation Pioneer

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Film maker Cecil B. DeMille became known for a number of signal achievements in the industry.  In 1914, he made the first film shot in Hollywood, The Squaw Man. In the 1920s, his epic biblical films like The Ten Commandments and King of Kings were enormously popular. His films Adam’s Rib and North West Mounted Police were successful mid-period works. Late in his life, he was still a major figure with 1950s movies like The Greatest Show on Earth and a remake of The Ten Commandments.

DeMille was also an early enthusiast of aviation. In 1918, he created Mercury Aviation Corporation, which had a subsidiary, Mercury Air Lines. The following year, DeMille established an airport across from Fairfax High School on Wilshire Boulevard. Shortly afterward, he moved to a new facility at the corner of Wilshire and Crescent Avenue (later Fairfax Avenue). This second air field was established in 1918 by Sydney Chaplin, brother of the famed comedian Charlie Chaplin, and then passed into the hands of the Rogers Aircraft Company and was known as Rogers Field.

Mercury Air Lines placard
A Mercury Airlines placard, date unknown.

After raising funds by stock sales and amassing a small fleet of aircraft, DeMille’s Mercury Airlines had its first delivery of a Junkers-Larsen plane in August 1920, with Eddie Rickenbacker, World War I air ace, flying the plane to the second DeMille field.

Mercury began service in May 1921 with a flight to San Diego, becoming one of the first American companies to run passenger service on a schedule and appears to have been the world’s first airline to travel to multiple destinations. The company ferried some 25,000 travelers to San Francisco, San Diego and Catalina Island and had a spotless record when it came to accidents and crashes.

In 1923, however, the costs of operating the business, the high fares for flights, and the lack of general acceptance of flying as a viable means of travel led DeMille to close the business down. Within a few years, however, those conditions changed and passenger air travel became more popular and sustainable.

The artifact shown from the Homestead’s collection is a placard that probably hung in the small bungalow-type office at Rogers Field. It is undated and whether the information applied to the earliest days of Mercury when regularly scheduled passenger service was not yet established is not known. It is, however, a very rare object from the dawn of commercial aviation in our region.

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