Ruth Law: The Aviatrix’s Florida Connection
It’s difficult to talk about the history of aviation in the United States without looking at activities that took place in Florida. As we’ve discussed in the past, Naval Air Station Pensacola played an important role in U.S. military aviation history. But the same hard-packed white sand at Daytona Beach that attracted automobile enthusiasts also caught the attention of early aviators looking for a warm place to fly year-round; well before the Navy set its sights on Pensacola. One notable individual to take advantage of the natural runway at Daytona Beach in the 1910s was aviatrix Ruth Law. Today, we’ll look at coverage of Law’s winter seasons in Daytona as well as the headlines she continued to make in Florida after achieving national recognition for her flying skills.
Born May 21, 1887, Law and her brother were both known for being adventurous. While her brother Rodman became a stuntman, Ruth demonstrated an interest in aviation. Ruth Law was rebuffed by Orville Wright when she expressed interest in enrolling in their pilot training school because of Wright’s belief that “women were unfit to fly” (DeMace). However, she was able to convince Phil Page to take her on as a student in 1912, determined to learn not only how to fly, but also how to mechanically maintain her aircraft (Lebow 204-205). Her choice in instructor possibly played some role in her eventual employment in Daytona. People interested in aviation had visited the beaches near Daytona since 1909 with the intention of using the smooth sand and tree-free land as a runway. In 1911 Glenn Curtiss signed a contract with civic leaders agreeing that one of the pilots in his employ would make a series of flights from the beach. The popularity of these flights prompted the owners of the Clarendon Hotel to sign a contract with aviator W. Starling Burgess for the 1912 winter season “to furnish an airplane and pilot to fly hotel guests” from “January to April” (Punnett 16). The pilot furnished by Burgess for the 1912 season was none other than Ruth’s teacher Phil Page, who made daily flights when the weather permitted. Page opted not to return in 1913 and, instead, “the job was won by Charles Oliver, but not for himself.” Oliver served as the agent “for his wife, the famous pioneer woman pilot, Ruth Bancroft Law” who, despite only learning to fly in 1912, had already began to make a name for herself in the aviation field (Punnett 23).
The Daytona daily news enthusiastically covered Law’s flights during the 1913-1916 winter seasons; the paper even had the honor of “selecting the first person” to be her passenger. On January 12, 1913 “at least 5,000” people witnessed Law fly with Col. C.M. Bingham who “appeared to thoroughly enjoy the sensation of being carried through the air far above the heads of the big crowd.” Over the next four winter seasons, Law’s flights were frequently featured in the Clarendon Hotel section of The Daytona daily news, which served as a society section for happenings at the hotel. The paper also featured advertisements which promoted her activities. These ads include the aforementioned passenger flights with her (which cost $15.00-equivalent to about $360 in 2017), local programs featuring exhibition flights, and mention of the brand of oil and gas used by Law. While in Florida, she roused late sleepers with her “buzzing engine”, executed her first loop-the-loop, and threw a grapefruit/baseball from her airplane to the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers (called the Superbas in our papers), becoming a part of one of the most iconic stories in Florida baseball history. The 1916 season would be her last in Daytona having decided to go to France to “enter the army aviation corps of the Entente allies.”
Given the seasonal nature of Law’s work, stories about the aviatrix aren’t unique to The Daytona daily news. If you search for “Ruth Law” in Chronicling America, you’ll discover a variety of papers from all over the United States that report on Law’s exhibitions and visits. Florida papers outside of Daytona tended to run stories about Law’s professional achievements year-round. Both The Pensacola journal and The Lakeland evening telegram ran Associated Press stories about her November 20, 1916 record-breaking flight “from Chicago to Hornell, New York” which “smashed the American cross-country flight record” (McGraw). Her flight, among other things, reopened discussions about the possibility of “aerial Mail Service” in the U.S., which became a reality in 1918.
Reading about Law in our papers, it becomes apparent that despite the fact that she broke records, her gender shaped how newspapers covered her accomplishments. Eileen F. Lebow discusses Law’s frustration with the media leading up to her Chicago-New York flight in Before Amelia: Women Pilots in the Early Days of Aviation saying that “if she (Law) was hoping the headlines would play down the ‘little girl’ aspect, she was wrong. Her youth and sex were emphasized” (Lebow 214). Despite wishing news outlets wouldn’t focus on her gender, some stories with this angle were intended to be complimentary. One story in The Pensacola journal discusses how Law is an example of “the modern woman” who, along with her peers, thrived in the public sphere rather than the home. Another article from 1916 mentions that Law was turning “little girls” into suffragists through her accomplishments. The article quotes one school girl as saying “’I noticed your picture on our bulletin board, where men usually show their faces. Now I am glad I am a girl, because girls can do just as wonderful things as men’” while a boy said “’it gives me great pleasure to see that a woman could beat a man at that stunt.’” However, even more than she disliked news coverage focusing on her gender, she resented that her gender kept her from becoming a combat pilot in World War I.
The escalation of WWI in Europe derailed Law and Ralph Pulitzer’s plans for her to purchase an “aeroplane superior in speed and carrying capacity than existing American types” to bring back to the U.S. (Lebow 217). Despite finding herself unable to purchase a European plane due to war shortages, Law nonetheless enjoyed studying the advances in aviation and expected “to return with new ideas for adoption in this country.” When the United States entered WWI Law wasn’t allowed to “fly in combat”, but she was “authorized to wear a military uniform” to help in fundraising and recruitment efforts (DeMace). Law would “bomb” cities with leaflets promoting the purchase of Liberty Bonds while wearing this uniform. Despite doing her part to help the U.S., in 1918 The Ocala evening star reported her being “peeved because the war department won’t let her go to France.” The paper argued that she should be allowed to fight because “if she was killed, as she probably would be, the principal effect would be to make our soldiers and our people more disposed to fight.”
After WWI, Law resumed her pre-war aviation career, sometimes offering commentary on the record-breaking attempts of others. The risky stunts in her repertoire, seen below in this article from the February 11, 1921 issue of The Pensacola journal, probably factored into her husband’s decision to announce her retirement without her knowledge in 1922. Despite her seeming lack of input in this decision, she nonetheless retired, prompting the Palatka daily news to quip that she “quit flying and settled down-instead of crashing as they usually do.” Ruth Law passed away at age 79 in 1970 but is forever remembered for her contributions to aviation and Florida history.
Citations and Additional Sources:
DeMace, Kayleigh. “Ruth Law Oliver: An American Aviatrix.” The Flight Blog. November 30, 2016. http://theflightblog.com/ruth-law-american-aviatrix/.
Josh. “Daytona Beach and the Earliest Days of Aviation in Florida.” The Florida Memory Blog. December 3, 2014. https://www.floridamemory.com/blog/2014/12/03/daytona-beach-and-the-earliest-days-of-aviation-in-florida/.
Lazarus, William C. Wings in the Sun: The Annals of Aviation in Florida. Orlando, Florida: Tyn Cobb’s Florida Press, 1951.
Lebow, Eileen F. Before Amelia: Women Pilots in the Early Days of Aviation. Washington D.C.: Potomac Books, Inc., 2002.
McCarthy, Kevin M. Aviation in Florida. Sarasota, Florida: Pineapple Press, Inc., 2003.
McGraw, Eliza. “The Ace Aviatrix Learned to Fly Even Though Orville Wright Refused to Teach Her.” Smithsonian.com Blog. March 22, 2017. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/ace-aviatrix-learned-fly-even-though-orville-wright-refused-teach-her-180962606/.
Punnett, Dick and Yvonne. Thrills, Chills, and Spills: A Photographic History of Early Aviation on the World’s Most Bizarre Airport-The Beach at Daytona Beach, Florida 1906-1922. New Smyrna Beach, Florida: Luthers, 1900