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Up, Up, and Away! With Airline Collectibles
by Bob Brooke

Airline China
Playing Cards
Airline Wings
Paper Goods
Advertising Items
What To Look For
Airline Collectible Values

"They have done it! Damned if they ain’t flew! said a witness to the first human flight as he dashed into the Post Office at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on the morning of December 17, 1903. On that fateful day, man broke his bond with the Earth. He flew and a whole new category of collectibles was born.

Fifteen years after Orville Wright soared for 59 seconds over the sands of Kitty Hawk, the U.S. Postal Service received a grant of $100,000 to start an air mail service within the United States. The US Army flew the first flight from Washington D.C. with 140 lbs of mail, destined for New York. Unfortunately the pilot departed the field in the wrong direction, and the first ever 'airmail' was finally delivered by train. The U.S. Postal Service finally got its act together and on November 15, 1926 accepted bids for the main trans-continental routes.

Western Air Express became the first scheduled and sustained airline in the USA in 1926 when it's mail services became so profitable that it flew scheduled passenger routes too. Through a series of mergers and buyouts, four domestic airlines–TWA, United Air Lines, Eastern Airlines and American Airlines– emerged. Western Air Express would later be part of TWA. Pan American Airways had grown to become America's largest international airline opening up routes across the Pacific and dominating Latin America.

By 1930 passenger transport had become an industry and the major airlines competed for passengers in the New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Carrying passengers required lots of equipment from dishes to playing cards to inflight magazines, even barf bags–all of which is collectible. And that doesn’t include all the ancillary items needed to operate a passenger plane such as timetables, crew wings, uniforms, safety cards, silverplate, flatware, salt and pepper shakers, trays, liquor miniatures, plastic ware, swizzle sticks, seat occupied cards, overnight kits, flight bags, soap, hats and hat badges, patches, buttons, service pins, ticket jackets, annual reports, posters, and brochures.

Thus it comes as no surprise that many of the items issued by and for the airline industry have become true collectibles. Most items associated with commercial aviation are those designed for a specific purpose at a particular point in time, after which they’re replaced by later versions, with the older item presumably discarded.

Airline China
One of the most highly sought after items is airline china. Some airlines first began serving meals onboard aircraft about 1930. The earliest marked china dates from the mid-1930's when airlines had only a couple dozen planes each holding a few dozen passengers.

American and Pan Am had some of the earliest examples of nicely marked china. Most of the early china was very lightweight so as to not overload the planes.

During the postwar era, most of the larger airlines used china to serve meals while smaller carriers like Delta and Continental used plastic. It wasn’t until the early jet era that fine airline china came into widespread use. Each carrier competed with the others for speed and service. This included what types of steaks or lobsters passengers could expect to be served.

In the U.S., the coming of the jet era also ushered in the common practice of segregating the passengers between First Class and Economy. In some cases passengers flying Economy didn’t eat from china, but plastic dishes, or sometimes paper ones. The 1990s marked a drastic cutback in meal service among all domestic airlines. Today, domestic carriers still use china in their First Class cabins while others serve no meals at all on some flights. Those who also fly internationally use different china on those flights. China used by foreign airlines is often made by the best manufacturers--Wedgewood, Spode, Royal Doulton, and Noritake.

Playing Cards
Another popular airline collectible is playing cards. Long before movies and video games, playing cards were the only forms of in-flight entertainment provided by the airlines. Playing cards also served as a low-cost advertisement for the airlines as passengers usually took the cards home as souvenirs of their flight experience.

There are nearly 3,000 different card designs known to have been issued by 438 airlines since the beginning of commercial aviation. The oldest are the ones issued by Imperial Airways, predecessor of British Airways, in the 1920s, featuring illustrations of a biplane and destinations of Cairo, Baghdad, and Karachi. Another interesting card from approximately the same era was the first card issued by Transcontinental Air Transport (later TWA), showing a Ford Tri-Motor parked in front of a passenger train, with the caption ‘Coast to Coast by Plane and Train’. Back then, flying at night wasn’t considered safe for passengers.

As commercial air travel became more common, airline playing card designs began to fall into five broad categories featuring aircraft in the fleet or pictures of female flight attendants, colorful pictures of destination cities or travel posters, joint advertising with products or companies from other industries, designs specifically for children, sometimes tied into a promotional theme such as Disney characters, Snoopy, and Pokemon, designs which simply show a carrier’s logo without any elaborate artwork

Airlines often employed playing cards to commemorate an anniversary. Normally distributed for only a short period of time, these are usually more difficult to come by than the ordinary designs. Sometimes, airlines used odd shapes, such as round cards packaged in leather cases.

Airline Wings
In 1929, the General Manager of Northwest Airways designed wings for his pilots. The Postmaster General liked the design so much, he adopted the insignia as the official emblem to be worn by airmail pilots. This first wing had a metal center with the words "U.S. Air Mail" in raised letters, fitted into a background of wings. Over the years, each airline designed their own variation, including wings for navigators which were gold with a sextant in the center. The airlines discontinued using navigators when Doppler navigation came into widespread use in the early 1960's. When the airlines began employing stewardesses, they designed a half wing insignia for them.

Since the first commercial airline flight, airline companies have developed a variety of ways to expose their name and image to the public. They learned early on to target children as part of their advertising campaigns. As flying became more common place, boys dreamed of becoming pilots and girls, stewardesses. Airlines provided children with junior wings for each designation, junior membership cards, log books, certificates, pilot and stewardess rings, and special patches.

Manufactured and issued since the 1930's, today there are over 900 known junior wings. Wings have been, and are still made from cast metal, stamped tin, plastic, cloth, paper and vinyl, attached using pin backs, "c" clasps, safety pins, push pins, button backs, adhesive patches, and stickers.

Paper Goods
Airline-related paper goods are another sub-category of this collectible. One of the most popular items is timetables.

There are two main characteristics of airline timetables that make them attractive to collectors–appearance, including the cover design, photos, logos, and advertisements and the content, including the flight information, fare data, and route map. As soon as an airline replaces a timetable with a newer edition, that timetable becomes a part of the historical record of airline history.

Some collectors want a copy of every airline timetable while others want a single issue to commemorate a special occasion such as the first 747 flights for US carriers, airline mergers, final issues for merged and bankrupted carriers, inaugurations of new carriers, strikes, and color scheme changes.

Airlines also issued postcards showing images of the aircraft that they gave to passengers onboard as souvenirs. Originally, these came as part of a flight travel packet and featured photos of the airplane the passenger was flying on at the time. The earliest example probably is from the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat showing the Benoist Type XIV flying boat.

Airlines placed travel packets in the seat pockets of their planes. A typical package included a beautiful postcard of the airplane, a small, pre-printed envelope/comment card, a "seat occupied" card, a sheet of writing stationery and matching envelope, a passenger information brochure, a fleet brochure full of color photos and a route map, and a luggage label. The travel packet’s exterior often had vignettes of various destinations.

Other paper items include posters advertising travel aboard the airlines to exotic destinations and in the early days, those advertising air shows, as well as onboard menus.

Advertising Items
Finally, there’s a myriad of useful specialty advertising items–travel kits, flight bags, blankets, etc. Travel kits, given everyone in the early years before class seating on flights and later only to those flying in First or Business Class, included toothbrush and paste in a case, sleep mask, tissues, moisturizing cream, a comb and a pen–each item bearing the airline’s logo. And who doesn’t have a vinyl flight bag hidden away in a closet or attic? These usually bore the airline’s on both sides, closed with a zipper, and had an adjustable strap.

One of the most unusual pieces of airline memorabilia is a hatbox in which flight personnel could store and carry their hats. A typical one from American Airlines featured a portrait of a DC-3 in flight, both on the box lid and on the bottom. An American Airlines flag decorated each end of the oval box, covered with images of blue sky and clouds. A canvas strap with snap secures the lid, while a shorter section serves as a handle for carrying.


What To Look For
According to Robert Marshall of Transportation Hobby Collectibles (www.thconline.com), collectors should look for well-preserved items, particularly in paper items–ticket jackets, boarding passes, safety cards. He also recommends items that show some style, a sense of class, or a great vintage design, as well as those from defunct airlines like TWA, Braniff and Pan Am, as these are highly collectible. Some, like Pan Am, flew from the early days of commercial aviation in 1927 until its closing in 1991.

Dating airline collectibles can be difficult as in the case of airline china and playing cards.

It’s also hard to date postcards unless it has been postal stamped or dated by the photographer for photo cards. Of course, it’s possible to creatively date items by the logos or images on them since these changed over time as the airline industry developed.

Playing card decks came sealed in cellophane. Decks are worth more sealed, so collectors should keep the wrapper intact. What shows through the wrapper is the actual card design most of the time. However, collectors should watch for generic cards packaged inside airline boxes or airline cards inside generic boxes.

While an "early" railroad item would be from the 1880's, an early commercial aviation item would be from around 1930. In those early days, each airline had only a handful of planes and employees. A surprising number of items from those early days do exist, although their rarity now commands substantial prices

Airline Collectible Values
Generally any pre-World War II china pieces are rare and highly sought after. Prices likewise reflect that rarity and some pieces sell for nearly $1,000.

Extremely rare playing cards, on the other hand, sell for between $7 for an individual card to over $100 for a mint deck. More recently, more common ones have appeared on eBay and are hardly worth less than 50 cents for an individual card or under $5 per deck. Unfortunately, over-zealous bidding has driven up prices beyond expectations for some decks. Generally, the most available cards sell for about $1 to $2 and decks for $10-25. Opened or used decks sell for less.

An Air France travel packet from 1956 can sell for as much as $40, while a hatbox like the one mentioned above can sell for as much as $180. A Continental lap blanket from 1968 now sells for $60. And even Pan Am flight bags from 1978 sell for as much as $33.

Airline flight bags are also in demand. They were free to first-class customers until the 1970s. They now sell for $10. Small plastic wing pins, which used to be given away to the children now sell for $1 each. Metal wings sell for $25 a pair.

The most expensive airline collectibles are schedules and magazines. Aviation buffs like to collect them because they gave information about earlier flights. But airline menus and posters also sell well.

Marshall noted that since eBay, prices and availability on some items have changed dramatically. "An American Airlines ‘Welcome Aboard’ booklet from the 1940's with a cover image of a stewardess in those military looking uniforms sold for upwards of $45.00," he said. "Now, because of eBay, these books are commonly traded back and forth and only seem to go for around $10, if that."

Fortunately, those involved in the early years of commercial aviation either as employees or passengers, didn’t always discard older items and many ended up in closets and desk drawers. While some value these items, others offer them at yard sales or flea markets.

But for most airline collectible collectors, airline memorabilia shows, like the annual Airliners International Show plus many smaller one-day shows, are the best source of items. Airline dinnerware is probably the most commonly found collectible at the shows. Much of it comes from legitimate sources. When airlines changed their logo or their china design, they’d sell off the older material or give it to employees.

To read more articles by Bob Brooke, please visit his Web site.

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