The Short & Riveting History of Zeppelins, as Told Through Posters

The annual Rare & Important Travel Posters sale demonstrates the diversity of locomotive options available in the twentieth century. In anticipation of the October 27 auction, Associate Cataloguer & Administrator of our Vintage Posters department, Sarah Shelburne, told us about her favorite quirky vehicle: the zeppelin.

 

At the turn of the twentieth century, the idea of a human taking flight went from an impossibility beyond imagination to a miraculous reality, and a new frontier was opened for exploration, expansion and, eventually, commercialization.

 

Lot 146: Ottomar Anton, Nach Südamerika in 3 Tagen!, 1936. Estimate $4,000 to $6,000.

Lot 146: Ottomar Anton, Nach Südamerika in 3 Tagen!, 1936.
At auction October 27. Estimate $4,000 to $6,000.

 

Inventors and entrepreneurs fashioned hot air balloons, dirigibles and airships, vying for the fastest, safest and most reliable means of travel for themselves and eventually for their adventurous and affluent passengers. Count Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin invented the aircraft that would be named for him and first successfully took flight in 1900. In the decades that followed, the zeppelin became the transportation de rigueur. These large, inflatable crafts were the stuff of dreams to a freshly airborne society, drifting seamlessly above skyscrapers carrying a few dozen lucky passengers across cities, plains, and eventually entire oceans.

 

 

Ottomar Anton, In 2 Days Across the Atlantic / Deutsche Zeppelin - Reederei, undated. Sold November 19, 2015 for $3,000.

Ottomar Anton, In 2 Days Across the Atlantic / Deutsche Zeppelin – Reederei, undated. Sold November 19, 2015 for $3,000.

 

The short-lived but monumental success of the zeppelin age is due primarily to its two most famous airships, the Graf Zeppelin and the ill-fated Hindenburg. Both German-based ships flew for the Hamburg-America Line; they were innovative, grand, and at the forefront of aviation, making them simultaneously iconic and infinitely marketable.

 

Lot 105: Margaret Bourke-White, U.S.S. Airship Akron, World's Largest Airship, silver print in duralumin frame, 1931. At auction October 25, 2016. Estimate $2,500 to $3,500.

Lot 105: Margaret Bourke-White, U.S.S. Airship Akron, World’s Largest Airship, silver print in duralumin frame, 1931.
At auction October 25, 2016. Estimate $2,500 to $3,500.

 

The Graf Zeppelin’s 1929 circumnavigation of the world was the first of its kind to carry passengers and reporters along for the ride, making the ship a household name around the globe. Interest in zeppelins subsequently soared and destinations expanded. The ship is depicted here in 1936 advertising its flight from Germany to South America, a well-traveled route pioneered by the craft in 1931 and made bi-weekly by 1934.

 

Theodore Etbauer, Zeppelin-Fahrten, circa 1930. Sold November 12, 2007 for $3,600.

Theodore Etbauer, Zeppelin-Fahrten, circa 1930.
Sold November 12, 2007 for $3,600.

 

With its world renown, the Graf Zeppelin was a fitting marketing tool not only for its parent company, but also for the Adolf Hitler-led National Socialist party. Following the party’s seizure of power in 1933, the zeppelin was quickly adapted for propagandist purposes, most dynamically so during its appearance at the Chicago Worlds Fair of the same year. According to Airship Historian Dan Grossman, “The political controversy muted the enthusiasm that Americans had previously displayed toward the German ship during its earlier visits, and when [the pilot] took Graf Zeppelin on a aerial circuit around Chicago to show his ship to the residents of the city, he was careful to to fly a clockwise pattern so that Chicagoans would see only the tricolor German flag on the starboard fin, and not the swastika flag painted on the port fin under the new regulations issued by the German Air Ministry.”

 

While these striking party banners are not depicted in our poster, they do appear on the fins of the Graf’s sister ship, the Hindenburg, in a contemporaneous poster advertising flights from New York City to Europe. This dramatic view (below) of the 803-foot-long airship silhouetted by a bright blue patch of sky is made even more dynamic by the spotlight of sun illuminating the mast of the Empire State Building, which was originally intended to be a mooring post for zeppelins. It has been debated that this plan, which added 200 feet to the building, was a guise for cementing the title of tallest building on Manhattan and beating the Chrysler Building by 204 feet, as the spire’s practicality as a landing structure never garnered much confidence. While technically feasible, its proposed purpose was soon abandoned.

 

Lot 145: Jupp Wiertz, 2 Days to Europe / Hamburg - American Line, 1936. Estimate $8,000 to $12,000.

Lot 145: Jupp Wiertz, 2 Days to Europe / Hamburg – American Line, 1936. At auction October 27. Estimate $8,000 to $12,000.

 

As Christopher Gray wrote in the New York Times after researching the mast in 2010,

“The original docking level is one floor above the 102nd-floor observatory, up some steep stairs behind an unmarked door. The stairs lead to a circular room perhaps 25 feet across. A door leads out to the circular terrace where passengers fresh from Europe or South America — and their steamer trunks — were to have set foot on American ground. The terrace is perhaps two and a half feet wide, and the parapet could not be any higher than that; it’s like standing on the raised lip of a Campbell’s soup can, a quarter-mile up. And because the terrace is circular, each side disappearing left and right, there is an uncomfortable sensation of being pushed outward. Were I arriving from Germany, I would have opted for blinders before leaving the nose. But it is an intoxicating view.”

 

 

Jupp Wiertz’s 2 Days to Europe / Hamburg – American Line (above) immortalized the cosmopolitan dream of the largest passenger zeppelin ever built floating amidst the skyscrapers of New York City, showcasing the breadth of human innovation’s attempts to reach the sky. Issued the same year of the Hindenburg’s creation in 1936, this image captures the peak of zeppelin popularity and forebodes its imminent demise. Just over sixty miles away from the Empire State Building at Lakehurst Naval Air Base, the Hindenburg caught on fire while attempting to land on May 6, 1937, killing 35 people and effectively ending airship travel in a matter of seconds.

 

Charles Hoff, Explosion of the Hindenburg, Lakehurst, New Jersey, 1937, printed 1970s. Sold May 19, 2011 for $3,120.

Charles Hoff, Explosion of the Hindenburg, Lakehurst, New Jersey, 1937, printed 1970s.
Sold May 19, 2011 for $3,120.

 

The infamy of the Hindenburg disaster, the airships’ ties to the Nazi party and their embodiment of humanity’s ingenuity have cemented zeppelins as a brief, yet dynamic, period of human history.

 

For some modes of transportation we still use today, travel through the full catalogue.