TIME Transportation

When Flying Was Fun: LIFE Goes to Stewardess School, 1958

The unrelenting bad news about America's airlines and airports -- in short, travelers hate them, and with reason -- got LIFE thinking about a time when air travel wasn't necessarily a living hell.

When LIFE ran a cover story in August 1958 on women that the magazine dubbed “Glamor Girls of the Air,” a career as an “air hostess” was still a relatively new pursuit. The way that LIFE described that pursuit, meanwhile, verged on the (almost laughably) patronizing:

The rather odd education that the girls [featured in this article] are getting is preparing them for one of the most coveted careers open to young American women today. They all want to be airline stewardesses. . . . The job they want does not pay extraordinarily well, only $255 to $355 a month. The life is irregular and opportunities for promotion are small. But the chance to fly, to see the world, and meet all sorts of interesting people mostly the kind of men who can afford to travel by plane gives the job real glamor. And the dawning age of jet transport, in which the stewardesses and their planes will go a lot farther and faster, gives it new excitement.

U.S. airlines employ 8,200 stewardesses. The positions are so eagerly sought that only three to five of every hundred girls who apply to major airlines are taken. To qualify, a girl should be between 21 and 26 years old, unmarried, reasonably pretty and slender, especially around the hips, which will be at eye level for the passengers. She should have been to high school, be poised and tactful, have a good disposition and a pleasant speaking voice.

You get the picture. But above and beyond the mid-century blather about slender hips and rich husbands-to-be, the article in LIFE offered a surprisingly nuanced picture of a stewardess-in-training’s day-to-day existence. From emergency drills and comportment exercises to the sisterly camaraderie forged during a month and a half spent working and playing together in this case, at a stewardess school near Dallas, Texas it’s clear that learning to be a “hostess with the mostest,” as LIFE put it, was no walk in the park.

Peter Stackpole—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

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