Published: July 9, 2019
Review and Photos by Marty Steiner
ATLANTA – You collect WHAT? Airline memorabilia!….Like what? Once upon a time, in a land all around us and across the world, there was a network of many dozens of commercial passenger airlines. Not content to let the memories or artifacts of that era simply be swept into the notorious “dust bin of history” the World Airlines Historical Society (WAHS) started its take-off run that celebrated its 43rd annual gathering, June 19-22, at the Delta Flight Museum at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Since Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines grew to the large international carrier that it is today by the acquisition and merging of many of these historic airlines, it was appropriate that this 43rd annual international collectors’ event – with 250 dealer tables – took place in the Delta Flight Museum. This museum is primarily housed in Delta’s two 1940s vintage hangars adjacent to the airport and Delta’s headquarters complex. Just as Delta is one of the world’s largest airlines, so too is the Atlanta airport, generally known as the world’s busiest.
But back to that question, exactly what are airline collectibles? Well, almost every known collecting specialty has potential items with an airline connection. For example, collectors of salt and pepper shakers ought to include the small ceramic examples that once graced the food service of first-class air traveler’s trays.
Tobacciana collectors might include airline advertising ashtrays, matchbooks, cigarette lighters and, of course, those sets of illustrated cigarette cards of airliners, along with their collector’s albums. Perhaps not so popular are those No Smoking or Smoking Section signs.
With a nod to the hospitality of Bill Damerest and Chris Smalling of WAHS, the tireless show organizers, and the many dealer-collectors whose passion for airline history often exceeded their focus on sales, this introduction to airline collectibles is offered to the broader collector-readers of Antiques and The Arts Weekly.
Airline collectibles may provide opportunities in more collecting specialties than any other business activity. In large part, that is because of the airline industry’s history. Commercial airlines in the United States have three distinct eras, each generating a broad collecting opportunity. While there were a few earlier operations, most significant airlines were formed in the mid-1920s primarily to carry mail. If space and weight limits allowed it, a few passengers might also be carried, but the mail clearly had priority. Most of the collectibles of this era focus on mail and routes.
In 1934, the entire airline industry abruptly changed when the Commercial Air Mail (CAM) contracts were significantly changed. Passenger service became the focus with every element of creature comfort being addressed and widely advertised. But commercial flight still had an element of adventure and was not widely used. The airlines of this era copied much of the railroads, including timetables, terminal design, tickets and more.
With no designated dining car as on railroads, food and beverage service was provided in place, at the passenger’s seats. Like the railroads, the food and beverage collectibles include dinnerware, flatware, service pieces, linen and glassware, along with coffee pots, water pitchers and service trays and carts. Adult beverage collectibles were offered in the miniature bottles labeled with the airline logo.
Sleeper aircraft copied the Pullman car methods of the railroads. Airline-marked pillows and blankets came into use and joined the pool of collectibles.
Returning pilots and other military aeronautics-trained personnel, along with war surplus aircraft after World War II, caused a surge of fledgling airlines to be formed. Most of these failed or merged. All left collectible traces of their existence.
Deregulation occurred in 1978, making the industry less constrained and facilitating the formation of many new commercial airlines. In fact, dozens of airlines have existed just since deregulation! Most are history by failing, but many were merged or purchased into current or legacy airlines. Even these mergers and buyouts have generated a collection specialty of transition items that include some combination of two or more airline logos.
Exploring the wide array of airline collectibles is mind and wallet boggling. Coca-Cola collectors can rejoice; Coke collectibles include paper napkins and cups with combined Coke and airline identification, advertising and, of course, commemorative bottles. The bottles celebrate everything from airline anniversaries, new routes, and introduction of new aircraft types to their fleet.
The basics of all transportation method collectibles are found in the airline world – timetables (also known as schedules), tickets, ticket jackets and boarding passes.
Luggage introduced its own universe of collectibles. Luggage tags, both permanent and temporary, as well as luggage check tickets and decals are all part of the field of possibilities. Airline carry bags with appropriate logos as well as the “I forgot my stuff” amenity bags round out this sub-specialty.
If you just can’t seem to sleep while traveling, there are that airline’s in-flight magazine, general magazines in airline logoed binders, playing cards, music with headsets and program guides for in-flight movies. With the advent of seatback computers, many of these physical items simply cease to exist and are now collectible.
The seat pocket in front of a passenger contains a treasure-trove of collectibles. The airline’s route maps, special travel package offerings, information on their loyalty program and credit card options, along with a few postcards of their aircraft, terminals and exotic destinations. And, of course, a catalog of manufactured collectibles was available for purchase.
And if all of this collecting opportunity upsets your stomach, some even collect those disposable airsickness bags, hopefully in mint and unused condition!
If this dizzying array of opportunities overwhelms you, you will understand the possible need to focus. Some focus on a single airline; a specific destination/airport; an aircraft type; or an era of air travel, such as jets, turbo-props or even seaplanes. Others focus on the type of collectible items such as glassware, timetables or menus. For many, a final tier of collecting focus would be to include only a single specific airline.
Some collectors and dealers have recognized the need for airline history and collectibles information and have written books and collecting guides. Books listing wings, timetables, travel posters and other objects were offered by some of the dealer specialists.
And, of course, there are still the antique malls, yard sales and various online sources. Who knows, your parents or grandparents may still have the silver-plated airline place setting that they secretly brought home from their honeymoon flight many years ago!
If you have now developed a new or expanded view of airline collectibles and just can not wait until next year’s annual conference in Phoenix, Ariz., July 8-11, check out the various regional and international shows throughout this year. Upcoming include Santa Monica, Cleveland, Newark and San Francisco. These and more are listed at the World Airline Historical Society website, www.wahsonlinecom.
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