Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


BARNSTORMING MAY EVOKE images of wing-walking and other aerial hijinks. Actually, though, I learned that the term “barnstorming” predates the aeroplane by decades. Here are tidbits of barnstorming, summer stock, and other related non-aerial theatrics. 

Aerial Only No. 3. Merriam-Webster lists three definitions of barnstorm: “1. to tour through rural districts staging usually theatrical performances. 2. to travel from place to place making brief stops (as in a political campaign or a promotional tour).” And, finally, “3. to pilot one’s airplane in sightseeing flights with passengers or in exhibition stunts in an unscheduled course especially in rural districts.”

Image from History of Aviation.

More Details.The Word Detective offers more details: “A word such as ‘barnstorm’ is especially vexing because the constituent parts are simple words in their own right, yet the combination doesn’t really make sense.  Who would want to ‘storm’ a barn (aside from the Bovine Liberation Front, of course)?”

The Word Detective continues, “The term ‘barnstorming’ first appeared in the early 19th century, applied to theatrical troupes that toured in rural areas, often mounting their shows in, you guessed it, rented barns.  Such tours were commonly conducted in the summer, and often featured actors who would be engaged in established urban theaters during the rest of the year (‘Miss Helen Bancroft, who recently played in this city, was announced as with a barn-storming company,’ 1883).”

Aerial Barnstorming, Real and Virtual. The Word Detective notes, “The use of ‘barnstorming’ in reference to traveling air shows dates to the 1920s, but the practice had absolutely nothing to do with barns.”

Except, of course, for flying a biplane through a barn that, oddly, has large doors at both ends. At least the barn in my flight sim has such a feature. 

Don’t try this at home, kids; we flightsimmers are professionals. Or at least we have reset buttons.

Summer Stock. The theatrical term “summer stock” is related to non-aerial barnstorming. The “stock” part refers to costumes and scenery borrowed from permanent theaters using it the rest of the year. 

Summer Stock, 1950.

The 1950 movie Summer Stock was a variation on the barnstorming theme: Farm owner Judy Garland is visited by her actress sister Gloria DeHaven and a theater troupe including director Gene Kelly. Guess who reluctantly falls in love.

Radio Barnstorming. Through my enthusiasm for SiriusXM “Radio Classics,” I’ve become a fan of Nick and Nora Charles, retired sleuth and sleuth encourager respectively. One of “The New Adventures of the Thin Man,” broadcast 1948–1950, was “Haunted Hams,” in which the Charles pair get caught up with a barnstorming theatrical troupe.

“The Haunted Hams” with Nick (Les Tremayne) and Nora (Claudia Morgan) can be heard on this YouTube.

This episode has two barns, one burned down, the other giving star-eyed Nora a new, albeit brief, career. And there’s nary a biplane in sight. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021


  1. Bob Storck
    December 13, 2021

    My grandmother’s family history has a reference to traveling troupes of actors, musicians and acrobats throughout SE Germanic/Czech and probably Swiss and Austrian rural areas in the 17th and 18th century. They’d perform in town squares, but preferred confined areas like large private barns where they could control entry income, and were out of the weather … especially early or late in the year. I don’t recall ‘barnstorming’ being mentioned, but she observed that the performance took place in the center, with the viewers surrounding in stalls and lofts … and considered it a ‘theater in the round.’
    On to aviation. Richard Bach and friends took a TravelAir and a Parks biplane around the country in the 60s/70s, recreating the ‘dollar a ride’ barnstormer life. Two books and at least one documentary resulted, Biplane and Nothing by Chance. I introduced Bach to two of my instructors who barnstormed in CA and the MidWest in the 30s, Johnny Swinson and Max Conrad Conrad told of coming into a new area, and flying a few circuits which served as advertising, and a survey. They’d seek the biggest barn close to a road with a good pasture. They’d arrange with the farmer, attach a banner to the barn, and rely on word of mouth/local papers to spread the word. They’d often live in and fix their planes in the barn … and said that related to the use of ‘barnstorming’ which undoubtably related to the previous traveling troupes.
    Finally, I’ve been told that river commerce was seasonal, and entertainers would rent river steamers in the off season and put on shows … ala Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. They’d pull into a town with colorful dancing and music blaring … obviously “show boating” for the intended audience. That term has come to have wide applications, from acting, aviation, and automotive displays.
    Dennis – Richard Bach and Max Conrad should be known to you, and more blog fodder.

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