Vintage Maps Rekindle the Romance of Early Air Travel

Before pat downs and checked baggage fees, commercial flight carried an air of mystery and adventure.

In the early days of the 20th century, an exciting new mode of travel became possible. Anyone with enough money could take to the skies on a commercial flight. Trips that would take weeks by sea could be made in days by plane. A Londoner could hop over to Paris for the weekend.

As commercial flying grew, maps became a vital advertising tool, tantalizing the public with exotic destinations newly within reach.

Now a new book, Mapping the Airways, conjures the romance of those early days with a collection of maps from the British Airways Heritage Collection, the airline’s archive of records and artifacts.

“Aviation was a revolutionary way to travel,” says author Paul Jarvis, the collection’s curator. “There was an air of mystery and adventure about it.”

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Early airline ads, like this one from around 1937, emphasized luxury and comfort and drew parallels to the more familiar passenger compartments of ships.

After World War I ended in 1918, lots of pilots suddenly found themselves with extra time on their hands, Jarvis says. Some of them decided to make themselves available for hire, and a number of small private airlines sprang up, using former military aircraft as their fleet. In 1924, the British government bought the best four of these small private aviation companies and merged them to create Imperial Airways, the first of several precursors to today’s British Airways.

At first, not everyone could book a ticket. “Flying was only for the wealthy, or for government servants, the military, and businessmen,” Jarvis says. The class of people who flew were used to luxury railcars, and they expected similar amenities when they flew. Plane interiors might use mahogany veneers to mimic the solid mahogany furnishings of a Pullman railcar, for example.

People dressed for the occasion too. “Men would wear a suit, collared shirt, and tie,” Jarvis says.

Longer journeys became possible in the 1920s and 30s. The travel times seem ridiculously slow today, but they would have been mind-blowingly fast at the time. One 1935 Imperial Airways timetable lists nine stops between Brussels and the Congo, with some legs traveled by train. The entire trip is advertised as taking four and a half days, but Jarvis thinks it must have taken at least five. “The airfare would include all hotels, all transfers, all food,” he says.

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This 1938 poster by artist James Gardner incorporates a stylized route map, likely inspired by Harry Beck’s famous 1933 map of the London Underground.

Traveling by air was more perilous back then. One map in the book (included in the gallery of images above) depicts hills and other landmarks a pilot could use to identify his position if the plane went down in the desert between Cairo and Baghdad. The map also notes the poor condition of some roads. “Very bad going over boulders,” it says in one place, an indication that help would be slow to arrive. (See “How to Read a Pilot’s Map of the Sky”)

During World War II commercial flights were grounded across Europe. In Britain, the airlines were taken over by the military during the war. One use for the commercial aircraft was flying American and Canadian pilots back home after they’d flown military planes over from North America to aid the Allies in Europe, Jarvis says. (See “Bomb-Damage Maps Reveal London’s World War II Devastation”)

The Cold War, too, had an impact. Through the 1970s, the Soviets tightly controlled air traffic in and out of Berlin’s three airports. A map from this era (also in the gallery above) uses narrow strips to illustrate the permitted flight paths. Everything else is blocked out.

The bulk of the maps Jarvis has selected for Mapping the Airways come from the first half of the 20th century, and they capture the aesthetics of their era. Many were made by prominent artists and designers, including László Moholy-Nagy, a leading figure in the Bauhaus art and design school in Germany in the 1920s and early 30s.

Jarvis includes a few modern airline maps in his book, the kind you’d find in the seatback pocket or on a screen that tracks your flight’s progress in real time. They’re just not as evocative as the older maps. Even if you’re too young to have lived it, it’s easy to feel nostalgic for the days before excruciating security lines and embarrassing pat downs, when people put on nice clothes and took five-day flights to the Congo.