QUESTION: This watch belonged to my father-in- law. I've looked and looked for a similar one, so I would know how to insure it or even if its worth insuring, but I couldn’t find anything. What can you tell me about this wristwatch and is it collectible?
ANSWER: Your father-in-law evidently was a pilot for American Airlines. As the captain of the plane, he would have logged more flying hours than his co-pilots. Back in 1939, flights over long distances took many hours compared to those of today, so he could have easily amassed a million miles or more.
It seems that American Airlines chose to award its loyal, long-time pilots with something to commemorate their years of service. In this case, they gave your father-in-law a Bulova Montgomery watch from 1938, inscribed on the back “American Airlines, Million Miler,1939,” along with his name.
American Airlines had contracted with the Bulova Watch Company to be their official timekeeping company. This particular model was a popular one in the Art Deco style, however, it originally had a leather band with three horizontal groves running its length which accentuated the design of the watch case, itself.
This watch belongs in the category of aviation collectibles which includes anything used by employees of the airline, that never gets into the hands of passengers. It’s these unique items---awards, plaques, objects from the boardroom, luggage tags, models, uniforms, etc.—that make up aviation memorabilia collectibles. Most collectors prefer older objects, though some focus on specific carriers to narrow their field.
The Golden Age of Flight might be defined as the period extending from the first flight by the Wright Brothers to about 1950 or so. Items in this category are more out of the mainstream than those in the airline collectibles category—and naturally are harder to come by.
From the start of regular U.S. passenger service in 1914, travelers have saved a wide variety of airline memorabilia. Generally, these items have to do directly with passengers. But there’s a lot of items,
When the early airmail routes began offering seats for traveling passengers, they often included free meals or refreshments to tempt big-spenders away from traditional rail transport. Full meals were first served during the 1930s on china made by well-known companies like Wedgwood, Hall, Syracuse, Royal Doulton, and Homer Laughlin. These sets, designed to be lighter than household dinnerware, often included the airline’s logo or name in their graphics.
Besides these china place-settings, airlines required a variety of glassware, flatware, napkins, menus, and other food service items. But passenger travel also necessitated the use of more disposable pieces, like safety-direction cards, amenities kits, swizzle sticks with the airline’s logo, blankets, headrest covers, and baggage labels, all of which people collect today.
Aviation collectibles also include any equipment used by airline personnel or ground staff, much of which is linked to certain carriers. Crew uniforms and badges or “wings” have been used since the earliest days of air travel, with specific designs to indicate employee positions from flight attendants to pilots. Early figural metal badges, like a Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) pin with its Native American headdress logo, are sought for their rarity and their aesthetic appeal.
Many aviation collectors are former employees of the airlines. They would have had easy access to some of the materials, especially when things like maps and timetables needed to be updated. Old ones would have been thrown in the trash. Uniforms also needed to be updated from time to time, so older ones would again have had no use.
Collectors also favor certain defunct airlines, like Eastern, People, Braniff, and especially TWA and Pan Am. Pan Am was the trendsetter for the first half of the history of the airline industry. It was the first to offer long-distance, trans-Pacific travel on its Clippers and set the standard for design and style throughout the industry.
For more information on airline collectibles, read "Up, Up, and Away" in The Antiques Almanac and "Eating Above the Clouds" from the October 5, 2011 post of this blog.