Northwest Airlines was founded on September 1, 1926 by Colonel Lewis Brittin, under the name Northwest Airways, a reference to the historical name for the Midwestern United States that derived from the Northwest Territory. Like other early airlines, Northwest's focus was not in hauling passengers, but in flying mail for the U.S. Post Office Department. The fledgling airline established a mail route between Minneapolis and Chicago, using open cockpit biplanes such as the Curtiss Oriole and the 1929-built Waco JYM.
1920s roundel logo
1929 Northwest Airways Waco JYM used on the Minneapolis-Chicago mail route
Northwest began flying passengers in 1927. In 1928, the airline started its first international route with service to Winnipeg (Canada). The airline's operations were expanded to smaller cities in the region by the end of the decade. In 1931, Northwest sponsored Charles and Anne Lindbergh on a pioneering flight to Japan, scouting what would become known as the Northwest Airlines Great Circle route, and proving that flying via Alaska could save as much as 2,000 miles (3,000 km) on a New York City-Tokyo route. In 1933, Northwest was designated to fly the Northern Transcontinental Route from New York City to Seattle, Washington. It adopted the name of Northwest Airlines the following year as a result of the Air Mail Scandal. The carrier's stock began to be publicly traded in 1941.
A Northwest Airlines Inc DC-3
During World War II, Northwest joined the war effort by flying military equipment and personnel from the continental United States to Alaska. During this time, Northwest began painting its aircraft tails red as a visual aid in the often harsh weather conditions. The airline's experience with the severe northern climate led the government to designate Northwest as the United States' main North Pacific carrier following World War II.
In the spring of 1947, Northwest began staffing its Tokyo base with company personnel, flying them on the Great Circle route. On July 15, 1947, Northwest became the first airline to operate a commercial passenger flight from the U.S.A. to Japan,  using a Douglas DC-4 aircraft named The Manila. The flight originated at Minneapolis-Saint Paul Wold-Chamberlain Field (the predecessor to today's Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport, and made its way to Tokyo (Japan) by way of Edmonton (Canada), Anchorage (Alaska), and Shemya in the Aleutian Islands. From Tokyo, the flight continued to Shanghai (China) and to Manila (Philippines). Service to Seoul (South Korea) from MSP commenced on October 20, 1947, and Naha, Okinama was included as a stop on the Manila route on November 16, 1947 Service to Shanghai had to be suspended in May 1949 because of China's ongoing civil war. Northwest launched service (from MSP) to Taipei Taiwan on June 3, 1950. With its new intercontinental routes in place, the airline re-branded itself as Northwest Orient Airlines, although the legal name of the company remained Northwest Airlines.