By Andrew Cunningham
Postcard collecting can take you to unexpected destinations. This post is about how postcards dragged me off into suburban Canada of the 1930s. A few years ago, as part of my collecting focus on my hometown of Winnipeg, I picked up an unused real photo postcard that seemed, initially, to be of rather minor interest. It depicted a little girl seated in a replica airplane, evidently designed for children. The craft was emblazoned with the words “The Spirit of Childhood” and “Winnipeg 1934”. The setting was the public sidewalk out front of a house of an exceedingly common local style: 934 something street; or maybe 334. Unidentifiable, in other words.
I filed it away and, I will admit, soon forgot all about The Spirit of Childhood. That is, until a few months ago, when to my surprise I came upon a second similar postcard. This one featured two girls in another replica airplane, which again proclaimed “The Spirit of Childhood”. But this time it wasn’t Winnipeg. It was “Vancouver 1934”.
How odd. What was going on? Were these planes constructed from a kit ordered from (say) Eaton’s or the Bay? Not likely, it seemed — their construction and painted lettering were similar but not by any means identical. And yet it certainly appeared that they had been designed with reference to a common model and, one would presume, owed their name ultimately to Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis.
Since then, I’ve discovered several more examples of The Spirit of Childhood online. The Peel Collection at the University of Alberta shows four postcards of this genre (for a genre it appears to be). One card is emblazoned with “Edmonton 1931” and there are also three Calgary examples, one whose date is not captured in the photo and two that respectively represent the years 1936 and 1937. The last image that my Googling uncovered shows a similar scene of a plane that doesn’t have a painted reference to a city or a year, but which apparently came from the Yukon Territory.
A new example of Edmonton 1931, from my own collection (added to the post in February 2023).
One useful result of this search was the revelation that the difference between “my” two planes does not, after all, mean that the designs were one-offs. In fact, if you look closely at the images linked above (plus my pair), it appears that there were two models of these planes. The “Vancouver” model appears virtually identical to Edmonton 1931, Calgary 1937, Calgary 193? and the Yukon plane, while the “Winnipeg” model looks the same as Calgary 1936. So now we are left with seven planes in two designs, dating from 1931 to 1937 and each being the subject of photographic postcards in a similar style. By that I mean that every single one of the photos has been taken on a sidewalk in front of a house — a natural place for the plane to be, I suppose, but you’d think that the odds would be that at least one out of seven photographers would have decided on some other equally good location. To speculate: could the photos have been intended for submission to an organization — to the manufacturer or a retailer, for example — as part of a contest the rules of which specified how the required photo was to look? Frankly, I haven’t a clue.
Another thing to note is that — going by what shows up in the first few results returned by Google — there don’t seem to be any U.S. examples, or examples from eastern Canada. Surely that must mean something….
But all I have at this point is that these planes were made from some sort of plan or kit, that there were at least two designs in use, and that these were distributed across Western Canada in the 1930s. They may have been intended to represent something about Canadian aviation, but — if that’s the case — I’m not sure what.
Anyone who might be able to shed some light on this aviation mystery is welcome to submit a comment!
Editor’s note: As a look at the comments below will quickly reveal, we soon received an answer — that these planes were props pulled by itinerant photographers around the residential districts of many western Canadian cities, with a fee being charged to the parents of children who wished to have photos like these postcards made of themselves. (16 February 2023)
My mother has a very early picture of my father sitting in a plane that looks like the first 1934 Winnipeg model. He was born in 1932 and looks to be around 3 years old and is wearing an aviator’s cap. It is one of my most favourite pictures as I think it captures the innocence of his childhood that would later become very tragic and difficult. I was always very curious regarding its origin. I’ll have to relook at the photo and pay attention to the date on the plane.
I have a photo of my mother in a plane like this. It was taken in New Westminster, BC, probably 1932, 1933.
Nice to hear of more and more of these! I’m not sure my grandparents would have sprung for this for my dad, although he was born in 1936 so likely just a little too late to have had the opportunity of trying to convince them
Thanks – they are wonderful images and appear to have been largely unique to western Canada although the general idea of using a prop (including live animals like ponies and goats) as a mobile photo studio was a venerable one by this era.
We have a similar postcard picture to those you have posted in the Spirit of Childhood plane article. Ours is of my mother-in-law in 1933
in Vancouver and I am certain, based on the visible marks on the end of the wing, that it is the exact same plane seen marked 1934 in your article.
The plane was probably repainted the next year when the photographer took it around Vancouver seeking clients.
Thanks, Dan. That would make sense. I just picked up an “Edmonton 1931” recently as well. It seems to have been a way to pick up some cash in the worst years of the Great Depression. By the mid-30s, the little airplanes seem to have been gone.
I have a photo of my grandfather in a Calgary plane with the date 1931. I hope that clears up at least a small mystery.
Hi, Thanks! That sounds like one of the earliest examples, of those we’ve seen or heard about!
I have a postcard depicting 2 children in a plane labelled The Spirit of Childhood with lettering showing Calgary 1931. The plane is on the sidewalk in front of the children’s house; the children are my sister, then 7, and my brother,6. I recall my mother telling us of a man going around the neighbourhood looking for wil.lling clientele.
Thanks! It’s amazing how many people have these wonderful postcards tucked away at home. The thing I’ve yet to see is one of them that was actually sent through the mail!
I have also found one in my mother in laws photos and thought I would research where it came from. It is a 1934 Vancouver Spirit of Childhood postcard and the background is a bit different than the others that I have seen posted so it does seem to back up the idea that the prop was moved around from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. Thanks for starting this post, it made it easy for me to find out a bit about the stories and photos that I am putting into a book I am making of her memories.
I just found a pic of my father and his brother, in Vancouver around 1930, in one of these planes. My mother (age 90 and a wealth of info), said a man hauled the plane around neighbourhoods taking pics of kids and of course charging the parents for prints. It is a great photo and I am happy to have found it and to have read more about the plane on this post! The boys are maybe age 8 and 6. My mother’s sister remembers a horse, but never a plane.
Thanks, to you and your mom and aunt, for the direct memories of the way these postcards were made. That confirms what we had guessed must have been the case. Few kids in the 1930s (even today) wouldn’t have wanted to climb into in one of these planes, so the business had potential!
I have a postcard of mom and aunt in the 1934 vancouver plane as well as an earlier postcard without a year but say “Miss Vancouver” and “Spirit of Youth” same plane. Just wondering what year this one might be
Not really sure — it would be very likely to have come from the1930-1934 period, but it’s hard to say for certain. Can you send an image? (I didn’t see one with your note).
Photographers would go door to door, often with a prop, maybe a pony, but in this case, an airplane. Dress up the kids, put them in the plane, out front of the house – a postcard and prints or whatever for a precious depression dollar. This is my educated guess as to what we are seeing.
I’m sure some company in western Canada had a few planes made up and sent out their photographers to canvas the suburban neighbourhoods for a few years until the novelty wore off.
This is actually pretty cool. What kid in the 30s wouldn’t want a picture in an airplane like that?
Maybe the kids out west weren’t as impressed with ponies, but I remember them coming around here in Ontario. Not to mention, an airplane won’t sh*t on your lawn!
Yes, that makes a lot of sense — I’m quite certain you must be correct. It explains why they were always out on the sidewalk, which seemed too improbable to be coincidence. It also explains why the scenes have the air of an “event”, which might not have been the case if the kids were playing in a plane they played in every day. Thanks for your reply!
I have not heard of this phenomenon. Perhaps TPC members in Vancouver, Calgary, etc. could search their local newspaper databases. In the meantime, there is another PC of this genre for sale on etsy: https://www.etsy.com/ca/listing/453802438/the-spirit-of-childhood-vancouver-1934
We were in touch with the aviation history society about this, and while one of their members had a couple of additional examples, he hadn’t researched it much further. However, he did point out that it wouldn’t have been uncommon for plans for home-made “planes” to be found in widely-read woodworking and home craftsman magazines. However, that still doesn’t quite account for the concentration of these images in, and (to my knowledge thus far) only in, western Canada. Perhaps more will come of it as more people see the blog post. (It isn’t exactly common to find photo postcards of 1930s-era children playing with toys or models — the fact that there are so many showing this exact item suggests that there is more to the story and that the creation of such images was being encouraged by someone for some unknown reason). — Andrew