Images from Washington Captured the Golden Age of Aviation in Glorious Black and White
There was a time when Harris & Ewing was the nation’s largest photo agency. Based on F Street in downtown Washington, D.C. (the agency’s main studio building still stands and is on the National Register of Historic Places), the agency expanded into multiple studios, had up to 120 employees and used a legion of freelance photographers. Many of those photographers turned their lenses on the airplanes and pilots who passed through the nation’s capital, providing a unique snapshot of the golden age of aviation.
George W. Harris was born in Wales, emigrated to the United States in 1881 and had worked in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Arkansas before finding work as a photographer in San Francisco. There he met Martha Ewing, who had her own studio. The two became partners. Supposedly President Theodore Roosevelt himself talked Harris into relocating to Washington, which he did in 1905. He became the White House photographer and oversaw the steadily increasing business of Harris & Ewing. Harris bought Ewing out in 1915 and he sold the business 30 years later. Before he died in 1964, Harris donated some 70,000 of the agency’s photographs to the Library of Congress.
Many of those images depict the aviation comings and goings in Washington. They include some famous pilots—Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh—as well as politicians, socialites and more obscure figures whose names are lost to history, often photographed standing somewhat stiffly in front of an airplane. The menagerie of aircraft captured by the agency’s photographers run the gamut from navy flying boats to the tiny Verville-Sperry M-1 Messenger that Lawrence Sperry used to land at the U.S. Capitol. Presidents, cabinet officials, military figures make their appearances, as do inventors eager to promote their latest contributions to the science of aviation.
This was a time when flight had captured the public imagination—and Harris & Ewing photographers were on hand to capture aviation history with their cameras.
British aviator Charles E. Lee reached Washington sometime in 1917, the year the United States entered World War I, and he performed aircraft demonstrations at the city’s Polo Field near the National Mall. Here he strikes a pose for a Harris & Ewing photographer in front of a British-built Avro 504. First flown in 1913, the Avro 504 was a popular training aircraft that remained in production until 1932. Taken at Bolling Field on November 27, 1927, this Harris & Ewing photo shows Maine’s Senator Frederick Hale (right) and Connecticut’s Senator Hiram Bingham III. The two became known as “the flying senators” because they embraced the use of airplanes for their government travels. Bingham was a pilot himself and had flown for the U.S. during World War I. Before that he had gained fame as an explorer who, among other exploits, rediscovered the ruins of the Incan city Machu Picchu in Peru in 1911. The airplane behind them is a Fokker F.VII. Lawrence Sperry emerges from his Verville-Sperry M-1 Messenger on March 22, 1922, after he nosed his little airplane up to the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Sperry was there to demonstrate the utility of the Messenger but also to lodge a personal complaint about money the government owed him. With a wingspan of only 20 feet, the M-1 was intended for use by couriers to deliver messages to the front during wartime. Sperry, who also receives credit for the first autopilot, crashed and drowned in an M-1 while trying to fly across the English Channel in 1923. He was not quite 31 years old. Amelia Earhart was a popular subject for photographers. Here she is captured at the controls of a Stearman Hammond Y-1 airplane sometime in 1936. The airplane was designed by Dean Hammond with help from Lloyd Stearman in response to a Bureau of Air Commerce contest for an inexpensive, practical and safe civil airplane. Hammond’s Y-1 was an unusual pusher airplane with a twin-tail. Already famous as the first woman to fly across the Atlantic (as a passenger in 1928 and solo in 1932), Earhart disappeared while making an attempt to fly around the world in 1937. Charles Lindbergh keeps a close eye as mechanics work on the Spirit of St. Louis, the airplane he used to cross the Atlantic in May 1927. Most likely this photo was taken in the spring of 1928 as the airplane was being prepared for delivery to the Smithsonian Institution in downtown Washington. Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh head out onto the Potomac River on July 27, 1931, near the start of an expedition to the North Pacific and on to Japan and China to survey potential air routes. Their airplane is a Lockheed Sirius they had modified and equipped with pontoons for the expedition. The Lindberghs began their trip on Long Island Sound and flew to Washington, where they obtained passports and other travel papers. The expedition came to an abrupt end in October when a mishap damaged the airplane on China’s Yangtze River. The Sikorsky S-29-A was a big airplane—big enough to carry not one but two grand pianos. Designed by Kiev native Igor Sikorsky, the twin-engine craft was at one point the largest airplane in America. This photograph was taken on April 23, 1925, after the S-29-A had flown the two pianos from Roosevelt Field in New York to Washington’s Bolling Field. One of them was intended for first lady Grace Coolidge, the other for a local piano dealer—perhaps the man in the photo clutching a copy of Music Trades, or the one testing one of the pianos to see how it survived the flight. Sikorsky, who flew the airplane to Washington, is standing fourth from the left, with his hat in his hand. Famed aviator Roscoe Turner later purchased the S-29-A. U.S. Army Air Service lieutenant W.E. Melville pours sand into a special container added to his de Havilland DH.4 at Bolling Field in 1924. It was all part of an experiment by Dr. E. Francis Warren of Harvard University, who theorized that sand dumped from airplanes would break up storms. A nozzle below the wing would spray the sand into the clouds. According to Warren, “if enough airplanes are equipped with this device, it will not only be possible to break up clouds and cause rain but to remove fogs from over both cities and harbors.” The Reverend Paul Schulte of Germany, photographed during a visit to Washington in 1939 or 1940, became known as “the flying priest.” In 1936 he became the first priest to perform a mass in the air, which he did aboard the German Zeppelin Hindenburg. The Stinson Reliant seen here bears the logo for the organization Schulte founded, the Missionalium Vehiculorum Associatio (Missionary Vehicle Association or MIVA), with which he intended to support missionaries in remote locations. Schulte died in Africa in 1975. We’re not sure what’s going on in this photo, taken sometime in 1926 at Washington’s Bolling Field. The pilot seems equally perplexed by the gentleman with the large tripod and a badge that reads “Fire Lines” on his belt. Members of the press sometimes wore such badges when covering fires, so perhaps this is a news photographer seeking some good aerial photos. The airplane appears to be a Curtiss 17 Oriole. Secretary of Commerce (and future president) Herbert Hoover (second from left) endures a photo opportunity with a Fokker F.VII that was used to fly U.S. airmail. At Hoover’s right is Anton “Anthony” Fokker, the airplane’s designer. The date appears to be July 16, 1926, the day the first scheduled passenger service between Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia was launched. This grass field in Virginia across the Potomac River from Washington was even named Hoover Field after the commerce secretary. The field no longer exists and the Pentagon now stands on the site. Rear Admiral Ernest J. King was chief of the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics when this photo of him and a Curtiss SOC Seagull was taken on June 8, 1936. King, who had earned his wings as a naval aviator in 1927, was preparing for a transfer to San Diego to take command of the Army airfield there amid rising tensions with Japan in the Pacific. “While other admirals have [a] floating flagship from which to direct maneuvers, Rear Admiral King will take to the air to direct his forces,” the photo’s caption noted. The notably acerbic admiral went on to serve as chief of naval operations and commander in chief of the U.S. fleet during World War II. Apparently not even George Washington, who died almost exactly 104 years before the first flight of an airplane, could resist the lure of aviation. Here Washington—or a reasonable facsimile—prepares to embark from his namesake city on a plane of Ludington Airlines. Founded in 1930, the airline was purchased by Eastern Air Transport in 1933.