They maintain cabin safety. They handle irate, inebriated, or just belligerent passengers and their overstuffed carry-ons. They balance family with work schedules that take them away from home for days at a time. They occasionally subdue terrorists, and sometimes they give their lives.
Flight attendants belong to one of the world's most demanding and specialized professions, one also known for being predominantly female and once upon a time requiring employees to meet very specific standards of beauty. It's perhaps unsurprising, then, that 'stewardesses' as they were once called and their work have been highly glamorized, most prominently this fall in the much awaited TV drama "Pan Am" premiering tonight on ABC.
The show, which is set in the 1960s and purports to celebrate the unprecedented independence of female flight attendants in a time when most middle class women were expected to make their families the center of their lives, has been criticized by some as "heavy duty sexism" masquerading as a tribute to female empowerment. And yet the show and its producers do acknowledge, for instance, the absurdity of the physical scrutiny to which stewardesses, who were usually well-educated, were subjected.
To what degree the show revels in or criticizes that aspect of the profession remains to be seen, but "Pan Am" has at the very least prompted celebration of real flight attendants and the hard work they do and have done since their role in aviation was created in 1926.
Earlier this week, HuffPost Travel published a collection of images of real Pan Am flight attendants throughout the now-defunct airline's storied past.
Here we widen the lens with a gallery of photos from LIFE.com chronicling the history of the female flight attendants across multiple airlines, from the early days of flight through the 1960s. Ellen Church, the first stewardess, worked her first flight for Boeing Air Transport (BAT), later known as United Airlines, on May 15, 1930.
(View all 24 images in LIFE.com "In Praise of Early Stewardesses" gallery here, and catch the "Pan Am" trailer below.)
For a sneak peek at "Pan Am," here's the trailer.