Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The accompanying photo is very illuminating when it comes to the division of labor often followed in packing houses throughout greater Los Angeles when agriculture was one of the mainstays of the region’s economy.
Dating to the first decade of the 20th century based on the clothing and hairstyles, as well as the natty bowler adorning the head of the well-dressed gent at the far left (who was undoubtedly the facility’s manager), the image shows the men around the outside of the view with the women in the center.
Aside from guessing who ran the show, it looks as if the fellow on the far right might have had some position of responsibility, perhaps as foreman, though that may be a nod to the stern look on this face and the fact that he neither wears a smart suit or gritty overalls. The other guys in the back (with the overalls) could well have been laborers in the packing houses–perhaps teamsters or those loading crates of fruit onto carts or rail cars for shipment.
As for the women, their roles are much clearer. They stand at wooden stands or stations next to bins on conveyor belts on which the fruit was carried. Wooden crates are at an angle on the stations for easier packing with others on the floor waiting to replace the one being packed. Each has a small, dark box or some other apparatus at the left side of each crate with the wrappers used for the fruit. A 1915 book on the industry, Citrus Fruits: An Account of the Citrus Fruit Industry by John Eliot Coit explained:
Both women and men are employed as packers, women being most largely used. The empty box is placed on a packing stand . . . the hod holding tissue wrapping paper is placed over one end of the box. The packers stand beside the sizing bins, and wrapping each fruit in printed absorbent tissue paper, place it in the box with great dexterity and skill, averaging about sixty boxes a day.
Ethnically, all appear to be American or European, with the possible exception of the two men in overalls, who look to be Latino. The situation was almost certainly entirely different out in the groves surrounding the packing house, however. Photos from the period tend to show Latino pickers, though there were also Chinese and some Anglos performing this work, as well.
Other items of note include the sign on the wall at the left identifying the house as a member of the California Fruit Growers Exchange, which organized in Claremont in 1893 as the Southern California Fruit Exchange. A dozen years later, with several thousand members representing almost half of all citrus growers in the state, the organization was rechristened as the California Fruit Growers Exchange.
Also check out the few electric lights with their clear bulbs suspended on thin chains from the rafters (check out the knob-and-tube wiring system there) providing the sparse artificial lighting. A shade is pulled over a large opening (window?) at the back, likely to make it easier to take the photo. Next to the dude at the right is a crate with the name “Red Shield Lemons.”
The exchange, in 1907, created the brand name of Sunkist, which, with the formidable marketing and promotional power garnered by the parent organization, became a nationally known product. In fact, it was so successful that the organization became Sunkist Growers, Inc. in the early 1950s, retaining the moniker to this day.
In places like Azusa, one of many towns along the San Gabriel Mountain foothills that formed one of the main citrus belts in the region, orange and lemon growing and packing remained a major industry for several decades after this photo was taken. While largely surviving the difficult years of the Great Depression and World War II, it was the vast reach of suburbanization that took the final toll after 1950. Azusa, like its kindred cities in the shadow of the mountains, transformed into a bedroom community and it became increasingly rare to find working orange groves in the region.