Aviation's Exhibition Era, the period between 1907 and the end of 1915, was a time of intense public interest in everything aeronautical. During those eight years, there were at least 5,500 aeroplane exhibitions in the U.S. Most of the country's large cities took it as a matter of civic pride to hold at least one aeroplane exhibition, and, indeed, exhibitions were given in every state, territory and possession of the United States. Millions of people were able to see aeroplanes for themselves, and (perhaps surprisingly) most of the aeroplanes they saw were able to fly.
The great aviation meets of the Exhibition Era featured competition between teams of aviators for precision take-offs and landings, altitude records and other events. The national air races of the 1920's and 30's differed considerably from the Exhibition Era's meets. Similarly, the barnstorming period between the two World Wars was quite distinct from the Exhibition Era.
Aeroplanes (as they were then universally called) were something of a mystery for over four-years after the Wright Brothers' first flight on 17 December 1903. Indeed, it was one-person airships, not aeroplanes, which filled the skies between 1903 and August of 1909, when the first exhibition flight was given by Charles Willard, utilizing a machine (another term for aeroplanes which was then in common usage) which was virtually identical to the one in which Glenn H. Curtiss won the speed contest at the famous Reims, France, aviation meet held that year.
Glenn Hammond Curtiss amazed many with his 1909 win at Reims. He was hailed on both sides of the Atlantic as a true hero, the personification of the American Yankee inventor.
The Dominguez Aviation Meet, held near Los Angeles, California, during January 1910, was the first international aviation event held in the U.S. It was the Belmont Meet, however, held in New York during October of 1910, which drew the greatest attention, primarily because of the high-society aspect of that meet. The rival Curtiss and Wright exhibition teams were present at Belmont, as were the Baldwin and Moisant aviators, as well as ten aviators from England and France.
The organization of the Wright and Curtiss exhibition teams, and their public rivalry generated tremendous publicity and, consequently, aviation exhibition and promotion became a sizable business. Fantastic sums were paid for even marginal demonstrations of the aviating arts, and demand for seeing aerial contrivances in flight was high.
The greatest of the Era's aviation meets, the one held in Grant Park, Chicago, Illinois, during August of 1911, was a phenomenal event, as can be seen from this panoramic folder postcard filled with overlaid images of aeroplanes. Some 34 aviators vied for over $70,000 in prizes. By the end of 1911, about 600 aeroplane exhibitions had been given in the U.S.
A number of amateur aviators began to give exhibitions in 1912, notably in the Midwest, and nearly 1,400 exhibitions were given that year. Two aviation meets of note were held during 1912, the third Dominguez Meet and the Boston Meet, at which aviatrix Harriet Quimby lost her life in a tragic accident. The Bennett Cup race, held at Clearing, Illinois, during September, was an embarrassment for U.S. aviators, for not a single U.S. machine was able to fly. As 1912 came to a close, the forefront of aeronautical development was in Europe, not the U.S.
The 1913 exhibition season was anticipated with some dread. It was widely assumed that the peak of such activities had passed, and great concern was expressed over the deaths of aviators which were happening with sad frequency. Even so, some 1,200 real aerial exhibitions were given that year, as well as a significant number of intentional frauds, with phony aviators taking funds and "flying" in an earth-bound sense, often on the next train out of town. Promoters of fake exhibitions also stalked the landscape, arranging fraudulent meets. All in all, 1913 was a difficult year for exhibition aviators.