Flying Through History: Delta’s Corporate Archives and Delta Flight Museum

By Marie Force, Archives Director, Delta Flight Museum

As Delta flies into its 90th anniversary of passenger service in 2019, the historical collections of the company continue to grow more accessible and active than ever. Since the 1950s, Delta has maintained archives that document and share its legacy of customer service—the “Delta difference”—in the words of its founder, C.E. Woolman. The collections also let visitors explore the history of aviation through the 40+ airlines affiliated with Delta through mergers and route acquisitions. Today, the Delta collections are the largest of the active U.S. airlines and managed by the Delta Flight Museum, located at Delta’s headquarters in Atlanta in the 1940’s era hangars. 

The Delta Air Lines Corporate Archives started through the efforts of Harriette Parker, who joined Delta’s Public Relations Department in 1946. As editor of the company magazine, she came in contact with people in all departments at Delta, and realized that Delta was losing vital corporate memory as its first generation of employees started to retire. She began to save “the obvious things like timetables and annual reports and pretty soon had a roomful of ‘stuff.’” Harriette’s working philosophy was “history was in the making at Delta, and that the archives would record it.” The first home of the Delta Archives was a wooden cubicle in one of its aircraft hangars, but by the 1990s it had grown to several storage areas scattered around the headquarters campus. During Delta’s 50th anniversary in 1979, a small employee museum room with historical displays also opened at the aircraft maintenance base in Atlanta.

In 1995, efforts by a group of Delta retirees to locate and restore an iconic 21-passenger Douglas DC-3, along with consolidation of Delta’s corporate archives, resulted in the founding of a non-profit museum in Delta’s two historic 1940s hangars in Atlanta. In 2011, the attraction, open by appointment only, was designated a Historic Aerospace Site. After a $10 million renovation in 2014, the Delta Flight Museum opened to the general public six days a week. The museum houses eight historic aircraft, exhibits in the Prop Era and Jet Age hangars and the only full-motion flight simulator in the U.S. open to the public. Visitors from around the world explore aviation history, celebrate the story and people of Delta and discover the future of flight. 

Behind the scenes, a team of three archives staff manage the corporate archives and museum collections in almost 7,000 square feet of storage space. Holdings include Delta Air Lines administrative, financial, legal, marketing, technical operations and public relations files related to crop dusting activity from 1923-1966, and passenger service from 1929-present. Also found are records from over 40 airlines affiliated with Delta through mergers and route acquisitions, including Chicago and Southern Air Lines, Northeast Airlines, Northwest Airlines, Pan Am and Western Airlines. There are extensive collections of photographic materials, passenger service ephemera and equipment, model airplanes and employee uniforms and insignia.

At the Delta Flight Museum, we are always looking for ways to collect and share stories and artifacts that show Delta’s legacy of customer service and the history of the airline industry. As Delta’s founder C.E. Woolman said, “The airline industry is keenly competitive. All of us have good planes, the only way in which we can excel is in the quality of our service." We collect employee stories through our oral history program. We especially focus on collecting ephemera and artifacts created for customer use at the airport and in the air, including tickets, bag tags, meal service items and flight souvenirs. We also document and collect airline industry “firsts” for reference and exhibits.

Since reopening the Delta Flight Museum in 2014, visitors to Atlanta can tour Delta’s 747 Experience in the world’s first-built Boeing 747-400, as well as new rotating temporary exhibits in the hangars. In Fall 2016, we launched our Online Collections and add items weekly. Visitors to our Web site can explore our Delta History gallery of timelines, aircraft, brand, leaders and uniform history. Archives staff provide reference services, primarily by phone and email, to Delta departments, Delta employees and retirees, media, other museums and the general public. We also facilitate on-site visits by academic researchers by appointment, currently only to Delta’s 1920s-early 1940s archival records. Find more stories, photos and artifacts on our blog “From the Hangars” and other social media channels, especially Instagram and #WaybackWednesday posts on Facebook. Follow us on Facebook to see live videos showing construction progress of our latest project: open storage room for our model airplanes, opening in late May.

All images courtesy Delta Flight Museum

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