Who Was Harriet Quimby?

by
Giacinta Bradley Koontz

She smiles at us on a 50 cent U.S. Airmail stamp, her Bleriot monoplane flying in the background. She was America's first licensed female pilot, and the first woman to pilot her own plane across the dangerous English Channel. Yet, she was much more than an aviation pioneer. She was a talented writer, photographer and world traveler. A career woman who supported her parents, Harriet Quimby was a woman ahead of her time. Although she wrote hundreds of articles describing people, places and technology she mysteriously left behind no diary, nor other clues to the intimate details of her private life. Who was Harriet Quimby?

Harriet Quimby flying her Bleriot monoplane
Harriet Quimby learned to fly at the Moisant School of Aviation
on Long Island, NY (1911).

Harriet Quimby was born in Michigan in 1875, and lived on a farm with her family until it failed. By the turn of the century, Harriet had relocated to San Francisco, California. Here, Harriet developed a passion for the stage, longing to be an actress. Instead, her curious “nose for news” and intelligent writing style channeled her toward a career in journalism.

Fortified with a farm girl's practicality and the individualism of a woman from the wild west's most sophisticated city, Harriet headed for New York.

It didn't take Harriet long to claim territory in the “Big Apple”. From 1903-1912, she was employed by Leslie's Illustrated Weekly as a photo-journalist. She traveled, took prize winning photographs, and wrote and edited articles on subjects ranging from political scandal to household tips. Never far from the stage, Harriet's theater reviews earned her an editing job at Leslie's.

Harriet apparently never married or had children, but she drove her own car and supported herself and her parents. By the last two years of her life, Harriet Quimby had become New York's sweetheart, frequently in the public eye, and always among the movers and shakers. By far, 1911 was Harriet's busiest year.  Fascinated by the challenge of flying an aeroplane, Harriet took flying lessons during 1911, and became the first woman to get a license in the United States.

As soon as Harriet got her license to fly, she went on exhibition in the U.S. and Mexico wearing an unconventional purple satin flying suit of her own design. In the spring of 1912, while continuing her journalism career at Leslie's, she maneuvered her 50hp monoplane across the English Channel. She was the first woman to do so.

By that summer, Harriet's personal charm, beauty and style combined with her well respected aviation skills fetched her a lucrative fee at air meets. At an aviation exhibition near Quincy, Massachusetts, Harriet and the manager of the air meet made a publicity stunt flight over the bay. As hundreds of spectators watched from below, Harriet and her passenger fell from the craft when it suddenly pitched forward. Few aviation accidents have spawned such continued speculation as to the cause. On July 1, 1912 Harriet Quimby's eleven month career in aviation ended. She left behind a vision of glamour, courage and intelligence.

With her own pen and camera, she also left us an intimate view of life at the turn of the century.

Harriet Quimby postage stamps

For more on Harriet's writing, see “Harriet Quimby in her own words.”

For more about Harriet Quimby's flying costume and the clothing of
choice for women fliers see "The Flying costume of Harriet Quimby".

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