by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The astounding ascent of aviation in the last years of the Roaring Twenties was especially notable in greater Los Angeles as passenger, cargo and air mail service rapidly grew in use. One signal achievement was the introduction of mail delivery across the country to New York with the inaugural flight from the Angel City undertaken by Western Air Express on 17 April 1926.
As the Los Angeles Times of that day explained, a pair of Douglas-built aircraft were due to arrive from the east late that afternoon and were to be joined by a squadron of five craft which left the airport at Griffith Park, located where the Los Angeles Zoo and the Autry Museum of the American West are situated today, to rendezvous over the Sierra Nevada mountains to the northeast and escorted to Los Angeles. Prior to arrival, a ceremony hailing the air mail service was held under the auspices of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and Mayor George Cryer, known to be at hand for so many public events, was there to greet the arriving craft.
Meanwhile, the Western Air Express craft were to leave in the morning from Vail Field in Montebello, which was the firm’s home airport, and make the first leg to Salt Lake City. Included in the cargo was mail from Los Angeles as well as “thousands of letters from towns and communities adjacent” to it, with Inglewood highlighted as one of those participating in the sending of missives to the east.
In addition, the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News of that day reported that “a plate of the Breakfast Club’s ham and eggs will be sent to Salt Lake City today as a part of the first load in the inaugural flight.” The Breakfast Club, comprised of business and civic figures, gave the food to pilot, Captain Maurice (Maury) Graham, who “will personally deliver the ham and eggs to Mayor Neslen of Salt Lake City” and who was to make sure the dish was “kept warm in the cockpit of the plane.” Of course, there had to be a Hollywood film industry element to the proceedings, as well, so actor Lois Wilson was photographed shaking hands with Graham before take-off.
In its coverage the following day, the Illustrated Daily News opened with “not since the days when excited Sacramento crowds cheered the arrival of the first pony express [in 1861] has there been shown more interest in something new in handling the United States mails than was evinced yesterday.” When Graham fired up his craft’s engines at just after 7:30 a.m., there were some 800 persons for the send off, including a band which played “gay airs” and a short oration from the federal postmaster. Graham was ready to taxi to the runway when mail arrived from San Diego and was hurriedly added to the cargo.
The paper reported that Graham arrived in Salt Lake City, with a stop at Las Vegas, after just over eight hours and it was expected that he would reach his final destination at the Big Apple in about twenty-nine hours. As for the incoming inaugural air mail flight, the pilot informed locals that he ran into some tough headwinds, but still managed to make it to Los Angeles nearly a half-hour ahead of schedule. From this point on, daily air mail service included the pick-up of cargo delivered by Western in Salt Lake City by government craft for the remainder of the journey to New York.
To commemorate the first anniversary of the inception of air mail service to and from the Angel City, the Chamber of Commerce, which was a large organization with a massive publicity component and enormous influence in the growth of the region, organized, along with Western Air Express, a campaign to set a new record for the amount of mail delivered in one flight—this one slated to have four craft involved. The Record noted that, over the year, pilots flew a half million miles and achieved a performance record of 99.76% in delivering some 5 million pieces.
Cities were encouraged to have their citizens send as many of specially created postcards devised by the chamber and the airline as possible, with the municipality having the highest number to “receive unlimited publicity through news items all over the United States as well as through newsreels in theaters.” In addition, a free round trip flight on a Western craft was to awarded to the winning city.
The Covina Argus, one of many papers that publicized the promotion, noted that “Covina had the honor of being the first Southern California city receiving direct air mail, when a letter was dropped from Salt Lake City , April 17th, 1926.” The missive was sent by the General Superintendent of Railway Mail and Air Mail Stephen A. Cisler and received by Winifred Adams and the container in which it was delivered was on display at the town’s Chamber of Commece office.
At Pomona, a much larger city, the Progress noted that its quota was 3,000 of the 140,000 cards being printed and its Chamber of Commerce was one of about four dozen involved in distributing the material. It was added that “the postcards are furnished with a single fold, while the inside bears a booster message applicable to Southern California generally. Each chamber of commerce prints its own particular message on the fold and the cards are then ready for distribution. Residents will be asked to mail them to friends and acquaintances two or three days before the anniversary of the first air mail flight by the Western Air Express.”
The campaign goal was to beat the record of 1,127 pounds of mail (reportedly composed of some 30,000 pieces) sent out by New York and, given the huge number of cards printed, “it is estimated that approximately 4,500 pounds will leave Los Angeles on that date” of the 17th. While it is was stated that there was plenty of support that “assures an aerial record,” it was intended “to set so high a mark that it will be some time before it is broken.” Pomona’s chamber secretary, Joseph M. Paige (for whom a street through Ganesha Park is named), told the paper “there is no reason excepting indifference why Pomona should not win one of the prize trips offered by the company.”
The Whittier News reported that the Quaker City’s Chamber of Commerce planned to send out 16,000 cards, with the community’s Forum Club members taking 1,000 after a Western official explained the idea behind the promotion. It was added that the cost to the sender was ten cents, considerably more than the two-cent staps for regular mail, because of the cost of air mail service.
At Monrovia, that foothill community’s News printed an ad that showed two of the panels in the card showing an aerial view of the city and of an Easter greeting (the flight was leaving on that holy day) to “Our Eastern Friends, From 13,000 MONROVIANS, With An Invitation To Visit Us.” Moreover, a message was devised with the first letter of each line being the letters in the city’s name:
Mountains form a background for homes that
Overlook the beautiful and famed San Gabriel Valley.
Nature has given a climate that is delightful and health-giving. Recreation of mountains, beaches and cities at command
Over the famed paved boulevards, or by interurban electric service. Varied interests in the social, church and civic affairs of a progressive community
Inviting prospects for investment in homes, industries or land.
Analysis will show MONROVIA second to none in homes, schools, church and social life, and a progressive business spirit.
As the anniversary date approached, it was reported that another 10,000 cards and then a further 25,000 more were printed because of surging demand for the contest. Los Angeles was to hand out 50,000 of the 175,000 pieces and the Times noted on the 14th that, “the local air carrier is making provision to charter airplanes in addition to its regular equipment [of four craft] should the volume warrant.”
On the day of the flight, Western’s president and general manager Harris M. Hanshue wrote an article for the Times, which began with the assertion that “Southern California’s achievement in air commerce is too new to be generally understood or appreciated in its true relation to world development of the airplane as a medium of transportation.” He added that commercial aviation only really began with the institution of air mail service, but claimed that the region advanced further in aviation in that short time than the rest of the world over a decade and had a tremendous influence on efficiency and value for the field.
Hanshue went on to suggest, “so marked has been the accomplishment here that it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the history of commercial aviation the past twelve months was written in Southern California.” Not only was it in the region that efforts since the late world war to make the airplane a sound mode for commercial transport, but “Southern California’s initial venture in air commerce . . . prove[d] economically sound and should set both in mechanical performance and in business production a new high standard for the world.”
Affecting modesty for the role played by his firm, Hanshue noted that “no greater tribute could be paid the economic importance of this section or the enterprise and vision of this people than is to be found in the bare record of events . . . [and] is directly attributable to a community spirit of progress.” Observing that his company was of the region, he added that with the half million miles and over 5,000 hours of flights, there were only two instances of delay, while no mail or cargo was lost or damaged, no one even slightly hurt, “and passengers were flown regularly for eleven months without the slightest inconvenience.”
Hanshue reported “that there are more than 60,000 regular users of air mail in Southern California while for the New York and Chicago areas the estimates are but 30,000 each.” Over a third of all such mail either came to or departed from the region, but, a year previous, the area ranked low in such use. One economic outgrowth was that air mail postage was not determined on a weight basis, but by the standardized 10-cent fee. He concluded that “the improvements made possible during one short year are only a beginning” and that
As the utility of the airplane as a passenger, express and freigh carrier becomes manifestly practicable the natural airmindedness of this people will be first to establish it on a sound economic basis and Los Angeles will find its destiny as the great airport of the world.
Despite the hype of the postcard promotion yielding up to 5,000 pounds of mail and possible requiring additional craft beyond the four scheduled by Western to ply the route east, the actual weight of the cargo that left Vail Field on the morning of Easter Sunday was only 1,165 pounds, according to a report in the Record. Perhaps because of the far less-than-expected amount, there was a silver lining in the clouds as the trip to Chicago took 21 hours and 50 minutes, an hour and ten minutes under the previous record time.
Still, the Pomona Progress registered palpable disappointment when it reported “Pomona failed to even approach its quota of 3000 postal cards . . . having only mailed out 484 on the planes which left yesterday to advertise Southern California to the east.” The paper, however, quoted Western officials as stating that 37,000 pieces with a weight of 2200 pounds were on board, almost double what the Record stated.
The Monrovia News, however, seemed quite satisfied with the city’s “very liberal contribution” of 748 cards, claiming this was more per capita than any other local community. Confusing the purported cargo amount, however, the paper stated that there were 47,000 pieces, mostly comprised of the promotional cards, and that the unofficial weight was 1,175 pounds and change, though it was expected a final tally would move the needle up to 1,200 or so. It was acknowledged that the campaign “did not come up to expectations,” but Western officials “expressed themselves as more than satisfied with bringing to Los Angeles the world’s record for heaviest load,” thought that was more hype than heft!
Whittier, however, seemed to have outdone itself as its News report, brief as it was, was that, according to a count by its Chamber of Commerce Secretary Burl G. Martin and Postmaster Will Braucht, Quaker City denizens sent off nearly 7,000 cards, almost 15% of the total number. Whether it won the contest, however, was not reported, though that turnout was pretty impressive.
As for the highlighted artifact from the museum’s holdings, the card was sent from Los Angeles, though the signature of the sender could not be deciphered, to an attorney with a New York City patent law firm with the simple Easter greeting. The back cover repeats Hanshue’s assertions about the preeminence of Southern California as it “outstripped the nation and assumed world leadership in the race to adpat the airplace to commerce” and that this “is just another tribute to the enterprise of vision of its people,” who were denoted “ultra-progressive” (a phrase that be viewed much differently today!) Generally speaking, the panel text noted that the climate, geography and topography were such that these made “SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA unrivalled as an agricultural, industrial, home community” with more than 2 million new settlers in the prior decade and a half.
On the inside is a great image of a Western air mail biplane with its open two-person cockpit soaring over an area, perhaps the San Gabriel Valley, and a quote of “where snowcapped mountains encircle valleys of perpetual sunshine by the sea.” The customized panel below was for Los Angeles, described as “the biggest city in the Western Americas,” and whose population mushroomed from just north of 100,000 in 1900 to over 1.3 million to date.
Typical statistics involving amounts of bank clearings, building permits, postal receipts and such were cited, including manufacturing output growth of more than double (from over $600 million to near $1.3 billion) since 1919 and assessed valuation of property in Los Angeles County growing from above a half billion dollars in 1910 to just shy of $3 billion in 1926. Also of interest was that the student population in Los Angeles jumped from about 52,000 in 1910 to over five times that by 1926, while registered motor vehicles were some 636,000 that latter year, half of all those in the state.
This postcard, while not as stellar as success as hoped for by its promoters, is still a notable document to demonstrate how dramatic the development of aviation, specifically in its commercial applications, was during the last half of the 1920s. Nearly a century later, we can readily appreciate, from artifacts like this, how the industry has grown and evolved from these humble origins to the huge commercial aviation field of our era.