Chapter 4: Barnstormers and Adventurers in the 1900s
Updated: Aug 27
The decades around the turn of the 20th century were heady, thrilling times. For those with the courage and ambition to challenge convention and, at times, the laws of nature, it was an exhilarating period of broken records, unfathomable opportunity, and terrible, often mortal, risk. The advent of automobiles and airplanes opened wide the door of possibility, and not just for men. Women around the world were making headlines, their lives and achievements just as bold and daring as those of their male peers. Here are three that I find particularly spectacular (there are a bunch of female explorers from that time, too, but these are the daredevils):
The Frenchwoman Camille du Gast, dubbed by the press “The Valkyrie of the Motorcar,” was a hot air balloonist, parachute jumper, motorboat racer, concert pianist, skier, competitive markswoman, horse trainer, fencer, explorer, singer, and racecar driver.
Marie Marvingt (also a Frenchwoman), called the “Fiancée of Danger,” was a cyclist, mountaineer, markswoman, swimmer, journalist, fencer, surgical nurse, hot air balloonist, and combat pilot in WWI.
The Belgian Hélène Dutrieu was a cyclist, stunt cyclist, actress, stunt motorcyclist, automobile racer, journalist, stunt driver, and aviator.
One of the commonalities among these women is the tendency toward thrill seeking. They raced cars immediately after the invention of automobiles, then switched to airplanes when the opportunity presented itself. In the United States, their aeronautical activities would have been part of what was called "barnstorming." Barnstorming occurred during approximately a twenty year period (circa 1915-1935) and reflected the reckless, expeditionary nature of aviation. New pilots were testing the limits of themselves and their aircraft, while daredevils (often called "wingwalkers") did things like play tennis on the wings, hang from their teeth or hair (I wish I was making that up), or parachute 5,000 feet in the dead of night waving two lanterns.
Since chapter four starts at a barnstorming show, here are some links to help show what spectators would have been seeing:
A video overview of the history of barnstorming: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RjnGsrV7G-8
An overview of how crazy the 1920s were: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/videos/category/arts-culture/the-weird-thrills-that-americans-pursued-in-_1/
Photos of barnstormers: https://piximus.net/others/aerial-stunts-of-1920s-barnstormers
A video of barnstorming: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eswt7imzzYI
An article on barnstorming in the 1920s: https://commons.erau.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1405&context=jaaer
An interesting article on one of the first black barnstorming pioneers: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2000-nov-05-me-47380-story.html
The JN-4 "Jenny" in action: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3y2iAIMOAe8
The Gates Flying Circus was perhaps the best known of the barnstorming groups and eventually performed internationally. Here's a good blurb about it from opencockpit.net:
"The touring Gates Flying Circus was by 1927 drawing as many as 30,000 spectators to each of its performances, and selling rides to 100,000 passengers a year. They had established themselves as "The Daddy of the Air Circuses." Permanent headquarters were near Teterboro Airport in New Jersey located in a wooden factory building, on which was emblazoned the legend: GATES FLYING CIRCUS, GREATEST AVIATORS IN THE WORLD."
Gates himself was born in Rockford, Michigan and moved to California in 1909. A biography can be found here: https://www.bidsquare.com/online-auctions/cowans/aviation-pioneer-ivan-r-gates-personal-photograph-and-document-archive-of-the-gates-flying-circus-founder-1203703. Since that's about all you can find online about him, I had to invent a few qualities for him. And I gave him a definitely non-Michigonian accent. Sorry, Ivan!
Chapter four also includes an introduction to transatlantic travel in 1923. Here's an interesting site that details the different steamship lines operating from the 1800s through the 1950s: https://www.gjenvick.com/OceanTravel/SteamshipLines/index.html. It's pretty cool that by the 1910s, the average transit time from the US to Europe was down to a week or less. For the story, I ended up using the RMS Olympic, a sister ship to the more famous RMS Titanic. Here's a good wiki page on the ship--https://titanic.fandom.com/wiki/RMS_Olympic--and a Youtube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m9acJcWhYHU. In my next post, I'll delve more deeply into the specifics of what it looked like inside.
When it came to passenger experiences, I had wondered whether non-Caucasian passengers on a trans-Atlantic steamer would have experienced racism. I had assumed racism would be just as much a problem on a ship as it was on land. Interestingly, however, the answer is no, it wasn't. It appears steamships--at least the European ones--were pretty equal for all. Here's an interesting article about it: https://longreads.com/2019/01/22/traveling-while-black-across-the-atlantic-ocean/. There's also this discussion of a Black man in second class on the Titanic, of which the takeaway is that the British didn't particularly care about skin color, only about money: https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/community/threads/nonwhite-first-class-passenger-restrictions.5071/.
For this chapter, I ended up doing a lot of research that I didn't use. For example, although I ultimately went with the Olympic, I ended up researching a bunch of other ships, including:
--The British passenger liners RMS Mauretania and RMS Majestic: https://americanhistory.si.edu/onthewater/exhibition/5_3.html.
--The RMS Belgenland, including a YouTube video about the steamer (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-IOOArZYn) and a news article that describes just how decadent this Red Star Line flagship really was (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/cruises/articles/the-golden-age-of-cruising-antwerp-belgium-red-star-line-museum-exhibition/).
The single most frustrating thing about this chapter was attempting to identify the exact sequence of ships that could have taken passengers from New York to either Alexandria or Port Said, Egypt. Although it was easy to find New York to Europe legs, it was much harder to find specific names of ships for the Egypt leg. In fact, I failed in that endeavor completely. Although the P&O Line definitely ran ships on a weekly basis to Egypt, I was never able to pin down an exact ship name. Oh well. I tried.
Finally, just for fun, here's something else I found in the course of my research. A site called 24/7 Wall St. put together a list of what things cost from 1775 until 2010. Here are some prices from the 1920s:
-Total annual cost of Cornell University, including living expenses, was $1,400 (1927)
-A Harley-Davidson motorcycle cost $235 (1927)
-A camera cost $80 (1928)
-A Chrysler Imperial Sedan cost $2,995 (1928)
-One pound of coffee cost $0.47
-$1 in 1925 = $12.20 today