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Airlines and Air Mail: The Post Office and the Birth of the Commercial Aviation Industry

Author(s):Linden, F. Robert van der
Reviewer(s):Dunn-Haley, Karen

Published by EH.NET (May 2003)


F. Robert van der Linden, Airlines and Air Mail: The Post Office and the Birth of the Commercial Aviation Industry. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2001. xv + 349 pp. $35 (hardback), ISBN: 0-8131-2219-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Karen Dunn-Haley, Ph.D., California State University, Monterey Bay.

The Airlines and Uncle Sam: A Match Made in the Heavens?

September 11 and a recession sent U.S. airlines into a financial tailspin, and one result has been a lingering debate over the extent and the form of government assistance to the airlines. Recently, one commentator noted, “Breaking up may be hard to do, but it appears especially tough for the government and the airline industry.”[1] F. Robert van der Linden, Curator of Air Transportation at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, has written a detailed account of the complex manner in which the airlines and the government tied the knot in the 1920s and 1930s. This history serves to remind readers that two early twentieth-century Republican administrations, subsequently widely misunderstood as laissez-faire, played a role in the initial development of commercial aviation. Readers of van der Linden’s thorough study might conclude that it is not terribly surprising, nor inconsistent, for a twenty-first century Republican administration to assist the airline industry in its continued survival.

The federal government embraced the nascent airline industry early on. Although Congress ignored a bill introduced in 1910 to employ air mail, a year later Postmaster Frank Hitchcock staged air mail service as part of an international air meet on Long Island, when “pilot Earle Ovington was sworn in as American’s first air mail pilot and, squeezing a full mail sack between his legs, took off … for Mineola some five miles away. Six minutes later, Ovington banked his aircraft and pushed the bag out of the cockpit. The bag fell to the ground near the local postmaster” (p. 5).

More serious governmental efforts followed. Motivated by an awareness that European aviation was surpassing that of the United States, Congress created the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in 1915. NACA addressed issues of aircraft design and performance, but it was up to further legislation to ensure that a market existed for the new airplanes. In 1925, Congress passed the Kelly Air Mail Act, which allowed private airlines to carry the mail, and in the following year, it passed the Air Commerce Act, which created a Bureau of Aeronautics within the Commerce Department.

Air mail revenues were crucial to the formation of the first airlines as they struggled to develop and provide passenger service. In the tradition of historians Ellis Hawley and Morton Keller, van der Linden describes the politics leading to the 1925 Air Mail Act and the follow-up legislation, and he explores the reasons behind government support for fledgling airlines in the 1920s. After acknowledging the precedent set by the federal support of public roads in the nineteenth century and the post office subsidies granted to American steamship lines and, later, the merchant marine, van der Linden shows how this tradition was applied to air travel. In so doing, he casts a favorable light on then Department of Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, who “actively promoted the new [aviation] industry through rational regulation and judiciously applied subsidies and incentives” (p. ix). Walter Folger Brown, the Postmaster General for President Herbert Hoover, most often also appears in heroic terms. According to van der Linden, it was Brown’s air mail awards and guidance that “forged three large, stable, financially powerful aviation holding companies, each formed around a solid core of air transportation companies, solely dependent upon the federal government and thereby dedicated to operating in the public interest” (p. 185).

However, what some viewed as a triumph, others viewed as corrupt. The second half of the book looks at the 1934 Senate investigations led by Hugo Black, which put under a microscope the air mail contracts established by Walter Brown. It has often been said that the passage of a law is like making sausage — not pretty. This book makes it clear that the metaphor falls short when discussing the passage of laws and the making of policy that supports new industries, which are unformed and chaotic by virtue of their infancy. As a result of the Senate investigations, which alleged “conspiracy, corruption and favoritism” (p. 271) in the awarding of air mail contracts, President Franklin Roosevelt suspended the contracts with private airlines and resorted to delivery by the U.S. Army Air Corps. Sadly, a hard winter and inferior flying equipment led to twelve Army Air Corps pilots killed in only a few weeks. Retaliating, Eastern airlines chief Eddie Rickenbacker labeled the use of Army pilots as “legalized murder” (p. 277). Facing this outcry, Roosevelt was forced to compromise by allowing private air mail contracts while supporting a new law — the Air Mail Act of 1934 — that forbade the vertically integrated airline holding companies. Van der Linden concludes: “Although the monopolistic holding companies are now gone, the oligopoly of airlines and manufacturers … remains virtually intact and unchanged. … The foundation built in those difficult Depression-era years has served the nation and its citizens well, with the federal government, as it was from the very beginning, ultimately in control” (p. 290).

Although, he makes reference to advances in the engineering and the design of airplanes during what is regarded as the golden age of American aviation, van der Linden’s book is a political and business history at its core. He explores the lobbying that took place as the 1925 Air Mail Act was conceived, and he traces the genealogy of the nation’s first airline companies as they merged and purged. More generally, van der Linden compares and contrasts the New Nationalism of Progressive Republicans with the New Freedom of Progressive Democrats. Airlines and Air Mail challenges the reader to keep track of the evolving company names, as well as the movers and shakers in the industry; a chart indicating the companies (with the names of the owners and chairmen) as they developed over time would have been a helpful addition to the book.

The book’s illustrations consist overwhelmingly of photographs of people — either U.S. postal officials or executives of airline companies, such as Philip G. Johnson, William E. Boeing, Thomas E. Braniff, Earl P. Halliburton, and Sherman Fairchild. This emphasis provides the clue from the start that van der Linden has written a book centered on people and a book about how these people, both executives and bureaucrats, set the stage for commercial aviation.

The book would have been strengthened had the author stepped back on more occasions to comment on the overall significance of the details he presents. However, Airlines and Air Mail is a must read for anyone attempting to sort out the beginnings of American commercial aviation. This book also should attract readers interested in how the federal government has failed and succeeded at regulating industries in the past and present — whether it be the past handling of such basics as the food and agricultural industry or whether it be the current crisis over how to regulate new and old forms of telecommunications. In addition, scholars devoted to examining the transition from the New Era to the New Deal will find much to learn in van der Linden’s account.

Endnote: 1. Edward Wong, “Inconsistency: New Hobgoblin for the Airlines,” New York Times, May 3, 2003.

Karen Dunn-Haley is the Interim Coordinator of the Faculty Mentor Program at California State University, Monterey Bay. She is the author of a dissertation, “The House that Uncle Sam Built: The Political Culture of Federal Housing Policy, 1919-1932” (Stanford University, 1995). More recently, she has provided background research for the authors of Inventing America: A History of the United States (W.W. Norton, Inc., 2002).

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII