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Before 'Coffee, tea or me' became 'Drop that nail file'

Design for Impact: Fifty Years of Airline Safety Cards; Eric Ericson and Johan Pihl; Princeton Architectural Press: 174 pp., $30 Come Fly With Us!: A Global History of the Airline Hostess; Johanna Omelia and Michael Waldock; Collectors Press: 160 pp., $24.95

September 21, 2003|Joe Queenan | Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of "Balsamic Dreams: A Short but Self-Important History of the Baby Boomer Generation."

Ask your average aeronautical kitsch buff what's the hardest thing about participating in this esoteric hobby and he's sure to say, "Not enough printed material about airline safety cards." Though these ubiquitous communication materials would seem to be a natural collectible in a post-eBay society, airline safety cards, until now, have never truly had their day in the sun. Princeton Architectural Press aims to change all that with a remarkable new publication titled "Design for Impact: Fifty Years of Airline Safety Cards."

Stripped to its core, "Design for Impact" is a belated homage to an underrated genre, allowing these deceptively ingenious instructional materials to take their rightful place alongside such items as the pleas for social justice in the rain forest on Ben & Jerry's ice cream containers. Running the gamut from the fussy, garrulous pamphlets of the 1920s to the terse, emotionally arresting placards of our own era, "Design for Impact" makes it abundantly clear that the airline-safety subculture is not a static entity but a vibrant, steadily evolving community in which graphic excellence and verbal ingenuity are highly valued. Like Heinrich Schliemann excavating Troy, Eric Ericson and Johan Pihl have uncrypted a glorious, though somewhat mysterious, world that society has overlooked for far too long.

With illustrations ranging from the legendary safety card for the Air Madagascar 737 to Sabena's instructions for handling an emergency aboard the Douglas DC-6, "Design for Impact" is nothing if not thorough. Of particular note are the cards showcasing "Little Hassan," a cheerful, somewhat enigmatic character introduced by Sudan Airways on the Comet 4C in the early 1960s. Finally resolving an argument that has plagued aviation aficionados from time immemorial, "Design for Impact" unequivocally asserts that Little Hassan also figured prominently in the airline's Viscount safety cards. Like the debate over whether Babe Ruth ever actually "called his shot" at Wrigley Field in the 1932 World Series, the Little Hassan controversy can now be laid to rest.

The authors of this scholarly book happily admit that "Design for Impact" would never have seen the light of day without the input of Carl Reese, "the world's most avid collector of safety cards." As a boy growing up in the City of Brotherly Love, a metropolis no better known for its passion for airline safety materials than, say, Eugene, Ore., Reese decided to start collecting airline safety cards because, in his words, "They were something unique.... [T]hey were hard to find -- you had to get on the airplane to get them." Today his collection comprises some 70,000 safety cards, including the seminal mid-'60s Allegheny Airlines emergency exit card, which reads on the reverse side: "Sorry, This Seat Is Occupied."

When Reese went to work as a flight attendant for a tiny Philadelphia company called Downtown Airlines in the 1960s, he was shocked and dismayed to discover that the airline did not actually have any safety cards. Reese thereupon approached the owner of the concern and asked if he could design some cards, and he shortly thereafter launched his own firm, called Cabin Safety. Word of mouth attracted interest from other airlines, and after that, Ericson and Pihl report, "the company really took off." Eventually Reese retired as a flight attendant, devoting his full energies to making his already superb airline safety cards even more aesthetically compelling.

Though "Design for Impact" is a visual marvel, the authors occasionally fall down somewhat in the text department. For example, they fail to address the question of how Reese obtained his 70,000 airline safety cards. Did he ever filch any? Was he ever forced to seek out shadowy figures on the black market? How can you spot fakes? Nor do they discuss the nuances of the airline safety card collectibles trade; I, for one, am still in possession of some illegally obtained Aer Lingus airline safety cards from the middle '90s and would dearly love to know how much they are worth and where I could sell them. Sadly, the authors do not discuss these matters.

Hard-core airline-safety-card historians may have other cavils. Consider the famed "Lieber Fluggast" ("Dear Passenger") card for the Lufthansa 707, circa 1960, which depicts a somewhat befuddled, cheerless passenger floating in an inflatable raft big enough for two dozen survivors. Tellingly, the man -- who bears a striking resemblance to our own Clark Kent -- is all alone. Is there a hidden subtext here? Was this a case of a disgruntled artist, frustrated by having to submit to the demands of the feckless bourgeoisie, deciding to get cute? The book does not make this puzzle clear.

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