Learn the Story of Harriet Quimby

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Explore the fascinating world of aviation and learn the incredible story of a fearless pioneer who broke society’s boundaries and flew to new heights. Welcome to Harriet Quimby’s intriguing journey as a trailblazing aviator whose indomitable spirit and unrelenting drive defied the traditions of her time. Embark on a captivating journey with us as we delve into the remarkable life of an often overlooked hero, unearthing her audacity, tenacity, and groundbreaking accomplishments that have left an indelible mark on the annals of aviation. 

Who is Harriet Quimby?

The early years of Harriet Quimby were shrouded in uncertainty and enigma. Despite her birth on May 11, 1875, the absence of a formal birth certificate led to a dispute regarding her exact birthplace. Various Michigan municipalities, including Coldwater and Arcadia Township, claimed to be her rightful birthplace. However, in 1874, her father purchased a farm in Arcadia Township, and their presence was documented in the 1880 United States Census.

Around the age of 13, Harriet’s family made a significant move to Arroyo Grande, California, where she discovered her true passion for writing. This passion eventually became her chosen profession. After relocating to San Francisco with her family in the early 1900s, Harriet delved into writing for newspapers and magazines. Her articles encompassed a wide range of topics, from theatrical critiques to captivating travelogues.

In 1903, Harriet made a pivotal decision that would shape the course of her life. She took a momentous leap by moving to Manhattan, New York City, to work as a theater reviewer for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly. This decision marked a significant milestone as New York City held the position of the nation’s cultural and commercial hub, while Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly stood as one of the most widely read newspapers of the era. Over the next nine years, Harriet would pen more than 250 stories for publication, solidifying her reputation as a brilliant and influential journalist.

Quimby circa 1911

Quimby’s Life as a Journalist and Transition to Aviation

While pursuing her career as a writer, Harriet Quimby remained steadfast in her commitment even as she ventured into the realm of aviation, ultimately participating in airshows. Alongside her aerial endeavors, she continued to contribute to Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, leveraging her influential position to advocate for aviation as a groundbreaking industry brimming with vast economic potential. Through her writing, Harriet aimed to ignite enthusiasm for aviation, urging people to embrace its transformative possibilities.

Harriet’s fascination with aviation extended far beyond its economic implications. She staunchly championed women’s involvement in this exhilarating sport, firmly believing that flying was a fitting profession for women. Determined to shatter the prevailing notion of women’s incapacity to pilot planes, she emerged as a pioneer for women in aviation, proving that anyone, regardless of gender, could become a skilled pilot with the appropriate training and expertise.

A momentous milestone in Harriet Quimby’s life arrived in 1911 when she successfully passed her pilot’s test, earning the distinction of becoming the first American woman to obtain an aviator’s certificate from the Aero Club of America. This extraordinary achievement not only carved her name in the annals of history but also paved the way for future generations of female aviators, dismantling barriers that had long restricted women’s progress in aviation.

Following closely in Harriet’s groundbreaking footsteps, Matilde Moisant swiftly attained her aviator’s certificate, thereby becoming the second American woman to accomplish this feat. Their exceptional achievements served as compelling evidence to challenge the prevalent conventional assumptions, resoundingly demonstrating that women possessed the competence and effectiveness required to soar through the skies as accomplished pilots.

Career as a Female Aviator

After acquiring her pilot’s certificate, Harriet Quimby swiftly grasped the potential for lucrative opportunities in the aviation industry as her fame soared. Her remarkable skills as a pilot made her highly sought-after for exhibitions and races, where substantial sums of money could be earned. With race prizes often reaching staggering amounts, sometimes exceeding $10,000, aviation presented an alluring profession for talented pilots seeking financial success.

Despite being nicknamed the “Dresden China Aviatrix” or “China Doll” by the press due to her petite stature and fair complexion, Harriet quickly proved herself to be a formidable pilot, deeply passionate about flying. She joined the esteemed Moisant International Aviators exhibition team, making her professional debut with a captivating night flight over Staten Island. The event garnered resounding success, attracting nearly 20,000 spectators and earning Harriet a commendable $1,500.

As Harriet continued to tour with the Moisant International Aviators, her exceptional piloting skills and unwavering dedication to her craft swiftly earned her a reputation as one of the era’s most accomplished aviators. Astounding crowds with daring aerial stunts and maneuvers, she garnered admiration from fellow pilots and aviation enthusiasts alike.

Being one of the few female pilots in the United States, Harriet Quimby astutely recognized how to leverage her femininity to her advantage. She understood that her distinctive appearance and style could captivate attention, allowing her to stand out in a predominantly male-dominated field. Through her fashion choices, such as sporting slacks tucked into high-laced boots and a plum-colored satin shirt, complemented by a necklace and an antique bracelet, she cultivated a unique and unforgettable image that resonated with people.

Demonstrating her prowess as a skilled and courageous flyer, Harriet frequently competed in cross-country matches and races, drawing large crowds eager to witness her remarkable aerial abilities. Additionally, she became a valued member of an exhibition squadron that traversed the United States, thrilling audiences nationwide. In a remarkable opportunity, Harriet was invited to participate in aviation events in Mexico City in 1911 to commemorate the inauguration of President Francisco I. Madero. This served as a monumental occasion for Harriet to showcase her extraordinary talents while simultaneously promoting aviation as a captivating and promising industry in Mexico and around the world.

Photograph of Quimby in 1911 by Theodore C. Marceau

Other Careers

In addition to her aviation endeavors, Harriet Quimby ventured into the realm of the film industry, showcasing her multifaceted talents. In 1911, she authored a total of seven screenplays or scenarios that were transformed into silent film shorts by Biograph Studios, a highly esteemed cinematic powerhouse of that era. Renowned director D.W. Griffith helmed these films, featuring notable actors such as Florence La Badie, Wilfred Lucas, and Blanche Sweet.

Harriet’s involvement in the film industry went beyond mere scriptwriting; she also embraced a modest acting role in one of the productions. Her foray into filmmaking provided an additional platform for her creativity and aptitude to reach a wider audience. As one of the few female screenwriters in the nascent days of the film industry, this opportunity also allowed her to challenge gender barriers and leave her indelible mark.

Apart from her successful careers in aviation and the film industry, Harriet Quimby undertook the role of a spokesperson for the Vin Fiz Company, a division of Chicago’s Armour Meat Packing Plant. This particular company had recently introduced a new grape soda called Vin Fiz and sought a renowned figure to serve as its ambassador and advocate.

Given her illustrious status as one of the nation’s most celebrated aviators, Quimby emerged as a natural choice for the position. Her distinctive purple aviator suit and persona are prominently featured in the company’s advertising campaigns, encompassing billboards, posters, and newspaper advertisements. Additionally, Quimby starred in a series of promotional videos crafted by the corporation, which were screened in movie theaters throughout the country.

Vin Fiz soda 1912 postcard

Quimby’s Historic Feat in Aviation

On April 16, 1912, Harriet Quimby achieved an extraordinary milestone by completing a historic flight across the English Channel. Despite having obtained her pilot’s license just a year prior, she embarked on an awe-inspiring journey from Dover, England, to Équihen-Plage, Pas-de-Calais, France, completing the daring feat in a remarkable 59 minutes.

Quimby’s remarkable flight marked a significant turning point for women in aviation, as she became the first woman to accomplish this remarkable feat. However, her remarkable achievement received limited media attention at the time due to the overshadowing headlines and public fascination with the tragic sinking of the Titanic, which had occurred the day before.

Nevertheless, Quimby’s accomplishment made a profound impact on the growing enthusiasm for aviation in the early twentieth century, opening doors for women in the profession. Her achievement shattered gender stereotypes, demonstrating that women possessed the same capabilities as men in the realm of aviation. As a result, Quimby emerged as an influential role model, inspiring future generations of female pilots to pursue their dreams and defy societal limitations.

Death and Legacy

On July 1, 1912, Harriet Quimby participated in the unofficial Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet held in Squantum, Massachusetts. Despite having obtained her Aero Club of America certificate to attend ACA-sanctioned events, the Boston meet fell outside this category. Setting off in her newly acquired two-seat Bleriot monoplane, Quimby had William A. P. Willard, the organizer of the event and father of aviator Charles F. Willard, as her passenger.

Ascending to an altitude of approximately 3,000 feet (910 m), Quimby embarked on a flight towards Boston Light in Boston Harbor before circling back and maneuvering over the airfield. However, at an altitude of 1,000 feet (300 m), the aircraft unexpectedly pitched forward for reasons that remain unclear, causing both Quimby and Willard to be ejected from their seats and tragically fall to their deaths. The plane descended and became lodged in the mud.

Harriet Quimby was laid to rest in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York, though her remains were later relocated to Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York, the following year. In honor of her legacy, a cenotaph known as the Harriet Quimby Compass Rose Fountain was erected at Pierce Brothers/Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery in Burbank, California.

The inscription adorning the Quimby Fountain serves as a tribute to her revolutionary achievements, including her trailblazing distinction as the inaugural licensed female pilot in the US on August 1, 1911, as well as her groundbreaking accomplishment of becoming the first woman aviator to triumphantly traverse the English Channel on April 16, 1912. It also acknowledges Quimby’s profound influence on future generations of women pilots, including her dear friend Matilde Moisant, who rests at the Portal of the Folded Wings shrine adjacent to the Quimby fountain.

US Postage stamp in memory of Harriet Quimby

Harriet Quimby, an aviation trailblazer, serves as a remarkable source of inspiration for women across the globe. Overcoming the challenges and constraints of her era, she surpassed all expectations by obtaining the first official license as a female pilot in the United States and achieving the extraordinary milestone of becoming the inaugural woman to conquer the daunting task of crossing the English Channel by air. Harnessing her accomplishments, she passionately advocated for aviation as a realm of opportunity for women. Tragically, her life was cut short, but she remains a symbol of courage, determination, and shattering barriers. 

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