Trans-Canada Air Lines hired their first stewardesses in 1938. Eighteen eager young women from across the country were brought together at Trans-Canada Air Lines head office in Winnipeg for training aboard Lockheed Electra 10A airliners. Along with a chance to travel, these women gained instant celebrity status, which remained through to the post-World War II jet era. To ensure an image of professionalism and safety, Trans-Canada Air Lines adopted a number of strict regulations and a military style of dress for them.
To be eligible for training, applicants were required to be Registered Nurses, under 30 years old, and unmarried. Nearly every aspect of their appearance from hairstyle, cosmetics and nail length, to height and build, were strictly regulated and closely monitored. For example, woman taller than 5’4” or exceeding, “… the neighborhood of 115 to 120 pounds,” would not be considered. A Trans-Canada Air Lines article published in a 1939 issue of Chatelaine magazine explained that the reason for this was psychological, “… if you’re sitting down and watching an individual lean over your chair and move among the passengers, she’ll look bigger than she really is. That’s why it’s necessary to have petite stewardesses.”
Trans-Canada Air Lines based their marriage restrictions on lessons learned from their international counterparts, where these intelligent and outgoing young women often left their careers for a married life after less than two years. These restrictions were relaxed a little during the 1950s. Stewardesses were no longer required to be Registered Nurses; however, the marriage restrictions remained.
Stewardesses of the 1950s were undeterred by these restrictions and many got married in secret. Helen Chernoff, a stewardess of this era, paid rent for two apartments; one with her boyfriend and another with a group of colleagues. Chernoff would return from her boyfriend’s by taxi, “… the night before with my suitcase, because we were picked up by limousine service.” According to former stewardess Nina Morrison, when the marriage ban was lifted in the 1960s, “… a tremendous number of women came out of the shadows and put rings on their fingers – almost the next day.”
By the 1960s, all of these restrictions were dropped and the military-style uniforms were exchanged for more casual and brightly coloured uniforms – reflecting the style of the time. In 1965, Trans-Canada Air Lines also exchanged the title ‘stewardess’ for the more politically correct ‘flight attendant’.
Today, regulations limiting the marital status and weight of applicants may seem excessive, but in their day these hiring policies were considered acceptable. After forty years of service as a stewardess and flight attendant Helen Chernoff reflected, “… in a way being a stewardess was flattering. I still enjoy it and I feel like I’ve had a great career.”