Simanaitis Says

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FROM 1924 TO 1939, Imperial Airways linked the British Empire during what in retrospect is termed aviation’s Golden Age. It was a golden age of aviation graphics too, as displayed in Joanne Gernstein London’s book Fly Now!

Fly Now! The Poster Collection of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, by Joanne Gernstein London, National Geographic, 2007.

Dr. Joanne Gernstein London has been a curator at the National Air and Space Museum for 19 years, 16 of them devoted to the museum’s 1400-piece poster collection. Here are tidbits selected from Fly Now!, focused on the art of Britain’s Imperial Airways.

Post-war Potential. London writes, “World War I left Great Britain with a surplus of trained pilots, mechanics, and aircraft, and with airfields from London to Cairo. Britain was ready to build airlines.”

At first, entrepreneurs were refused government subsidies. “But they persevered,” notes London, and, “In 1924 the British government consolidated existing airlines to create a national carrier, suitably named Imperial Airways.” 

6 Days, 1931, 30 x 20 in. This and the following images from Fly Now!

“By 1931,” London writes, “it took only six days to get to India. Though not exactly direct, the routes significantly cut the usual travel time by train and ship.” Like the first U.S. transcontinental flights, the travel was anything but non-stop: London to Paris was by plane, then by train to Brindisi, Italy, followed by flights to Athens, then to Haifa, and finally onward to India.

The Heyday of Flying Boats. Watercraft had the benefit of unrestricted “runways.” Flying boats were “the modern way.”

Fly There, 1928, 40 x 25 in.

London observes, “The era’s posters touted particular aircraft, bearing recognizable registration numbers and monikers…. Flying was such a novel experience that posters highlighting basic details—the number of engines or seating arrangements—were enticing.”

Reliability Comfort, 1934, 40 x 25 in.

London describes, “British artist Edgar Ainsworth’s poster composition [shown above] is a well-balanced combination of two avant-garde styles. Ainsworth’s edgy chevrons imply speed and modernity…. He used symbols—propellers, horses, and half horses, for example—to represent the plane’s four 555-horsepower engines.”

An Ensign Airliner, 1938, 25 x 40 in.

The Armstrong Whitworh A.W.27 Ensign was the largest airliner built in Britain during the Interwar period. This poster shows several of its advanced features, including multilevel accommodations, adjustable seats, and sleeping berths in its 27-passenger long-haul variation.

Plane Versus Ship. “Sometimes,” London says, “posters depicted an airplane subsumed into a sleek, abstract images of speed and motion. Other posters… employed caricature.”

Imperial Airways, 1931, 40 x 25 in.

London observes, “Paul Scheurich created the jolly, overadorned naval commander marveling at Imperial Airways’s Handley Page H.P. 42.”

Plane Versus Train. London says, “The airline industry walked a fine line when it compared itself to the passenger train industry in order to sell its services…. One way to calm passengers’ fears about air travel was to declare airplane cabin amenities as comfortable as those on a train, if not more so.”  

Luxury, c. 1938, 19 1/2 x 12 1/2 in.

London continues, “The poster for Imperial Airways [above] takes that approach to the limit…. The message is clear: Grab your passport and luxury is yours—whether you are on the way to Africa, India, China, or Australia.”

I like how smartly everyone is attired. Wouldn’t it be fun to join them? ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021 

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