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Free to Use and Reuse: Aircraft!

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 All-Story Magazine, cover, Oct. 1908.Artist: Harry Grant Dart. Prints and Photographs Division.

The Library’s Free to Use and Reuse copyright-free prints and photographs are among the most popular items in the Library’s vast collections. They’re great images from days gone by and they’re yours for free! You can check out the pictures in travel posters, autumn and halloweenweddings,  movie palaces and dozens more. You can download them, make posters for your home or wallpapers for your phone.

Let’s check out a few from our aircraft collection.

As the 1908 illustration above shows, we have a very liberal definition of “aircraft.” This contraption, with a nattily-attired couple purring through the heavens, appears to be akin to a two-seater convertible with wings, perched below a zeppelin. Our heroine has taken the wheel and her gentleman companion is, no doubt, mansplaining how to Fly This Danged Thing.

It’s not clear how high or fast they’re going, but nobody needs goggles and their hats are unbothered. She sensibly has her hands at 9 and 3 on the wheel and appears to be looking at the gauge in front of her. They’ve got a fancy brass headlight but … are they really going to flying that thing at night?

A stunt woman holds onto a rope dangling from the wing of a prop plane.
Stunt woman Lillian Boyer, performing “The Break Away” in 1922. Photo: Unknown. Prints and Photographs Division.

Next, it’s good to remember that it took human beings millions of years of existence to develop the airplane — and then about 15 minutes get out of them in midair. Welcome to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when barnstorming pilots fanned out over the country at festivals and county fairs, taking cash-paying passengers for a quick ride or performing death-defying aerial stunts.

This became a national phenomenon after World War I, when nearly all of the nation’s first military pilots trained on a Curtiss JN-4, a biplane nicknamed a “Jenny.” It had a 90 horsepower motor (less than most motorcycles today) and topped out at a daring 75 mph. After the war, the military sold surplus planes on the cheap. Pilots snapped them up. Barnstorming was born.

It didn’t take long for wing walkers to hop out of the cockpit and hang on to a strut or cables between the wings, producing gasps from crowds below. Lillian Boyer, a 20-year-old waitress from Nebraska, took exactly two flights to do this, as she most certainly did not want to remain in her seat and return her tray to the upright and locked position.

As crowds gathered at airfields, Boyer swooped past, walking on wings, hanging from them by a single hand and jumping from one plane to another — without a parachute or any sort of safety equipment. Sometimes she just hung onto a cable beneath the plane — with her teeth. Her real crowd pleaser was to stand up in a sports car tearing down a runway, reach up for a rope ladder dangling from her plane flying above, and climb up as it swooped higher in the sky. (On Youtube, you can see her do this on the backstretch of a horse racing track.) Headlines dubbed her Empress of the Skies. She performed hundreds of times across the Midwest and South during a seven-year career, until federal authorities shut down such stunts as unsafe. (Wing walker stunts were later revived at throwback shows, even in recent years. Deaths are rare, but still happen.)

“I don’t know if it was just lack of good sense, but I wasn’t afraid,” she said some 60 years after her heyday, when a reporter from Copley News Service caught up with her at an airfield near her home in San Diego. She was 82 then, in great spirits and out for a quick ride in a vintage biplane. She stayed in her seat the entire flight, the reporter noted.

Poster shows large Clipper seaplane flying over the Caribbean, with parrot, town, and two women in foreground.
A Pan American travel poster from the late 1940s. Artist: Mark von Arenburg. Prints and Photographs Division.

Lastly, let’s remember the mid-century, the final days of the golden age of travel, when flying was something you dressed up to do. This Pan American poster captures that feel, presenting an alluring version of the Caribbean, though to no specific island. There’s more than a touch of colonialism featured as romance here, most notably the Spanish conquistadors magically in the rose-colored clouds. It was a world view that would shortly change.

The artist, Mark von Arenburg, was an ace at these sort of romantic travel posters, with the big block print, the plane soaring and a tropical locale beckoning. He makes great use of red here, as a bold pop against the azure blue.

The aircraft soaring past those clouds appears to be a Douglas DC-4. It was developed in the early 1940s, used extensively in World War II (particularly in the Berlin Airlift) and then made the switch to the civilian market. The planes were capable of transoceanic travel, but the cruising speed was about 230 mph, a little than half of what jets cruise at today. If flights were longer, at least passengers had leg room most travelers today would envy — in most configurations, only 44 passengers were on board, with four seats per aisle. I know, i know — there was no middle seat. Talk about the travel of your dreams.

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  1. Von Arenburg’s travel poster includes figures in the clouds carrying heavy chests. Those figures are copied, almost without changes, from a 1920 painting by N.C. Wyeth… An illustration for the book “westward ho! By Charles Kingsley.

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