by Paul R. Spitzzeri
My colleague Michelle Villarreal pulled many interesting historic artifacts relating to Victorian-era greater Los Angeles in preparation for exhibits at our Victorian Fair this past weekend.
Typically, as an old religious saying goes “Many were called, but few were chosen,” as a significant number of great items just didn’t make the cut and remained in storage over the weekend waiting to return to their homes and hope for another shot next spring!
One of the amazing artifacts that fell into this category is a photograph album assembled by a tourist to Los Angeles in spring 1894, at the end of the Victorian era. A few dozen cabinet card sized images were pasted down and then brief inscriptions identifying locations were written in white ink at the bottom. Unfortunately, many of the images have faded considerably, so a bit of editing was needed to the accompanying scans to get them to a decent level of visibility.
It’s worth pointing out that only a few years prior, such an album would not have been possible. This is because Kodak introduced its first personal camera at the beginning of that decade. Before 1890, tourists would be forced to buy souvenir images taken by professionals.
In the early days of personal photography, though, the hobby was still pretty expensive, both in terms of purchasing a camera and then paying for the processing. Then again, for a tourist to travel out to Los Angeles for a visit would have meant they had to be from at least the middle class and, consequently, afford the trip. Vacations for the masses were not quite in the works at the time.
The unnamed tourists stayed at the Hotel Vernon, which opened just the previous year somewhere in South Los Angeles, probably not far from Exposition Park, which was a fashionable area of the city at the end of the 19th century. If the photos in the album are an accurate guide, they made the rounds to some of the many popular attractions in the region. As a side note, 1894 was the year after a major national economic depression broke out, so times were pretty rough for a lot of American then. Obviously, these folks weren’t in distress (or, at least, weren’t yet!)
These destinations also ranged from the historical to the new to the exotic, which is also not particularly surprising. For example, on the history front, there is a photograph of the Mission San Gabriel, with a member of the tourist party posed near the old stone church’s belfry and the rectory, a typical spot for images of the Spanish-era landmark.
Another photo shows the adobe house utilized as the headquarters for Colonel John Charles Frémont during the 1846-47 invasion of Mexican Alta California by the United States during the Mexican-American War. Frémont, who didn’t take part in the final battle for Los Angeles that ended the war in early January 1847, then took the initiative (or took advantage) and executed a treaty with General Andrés Pico, brother of the governor, Don Pío Pico, at Cahuenga Pass, to officially terminate hostilities.
The adobe in Los Angeles was Frémont’s quarters while he wooed support from locals, like William Workman, before heading north to stake his claim as the governor of the new possession. Eventually, Frémont was court-martialed for several actions taken as governor, including issuing a promissory note of $5,000 to Workman’s son-in-law, F.P.F. Temple, for a little island in San Francisco Bay called Alcatraz, which had been granted to Workman by Governor Pico in 1846.
With regard to the new elements of town captured by the tourist’s camera, there were several images of Los Angeles city parks, all of which were just a few years old at the time of this visit. Among these was Westlake, easily the most popular of the parks, probably because its neighborhood was about the most well-heeled in the city; Elysian, which adorned the hills just north of the historic center, the Plaza; and Hollenbeck, in another fashionable suburb, Boyle Heights, developed by Workman’s nephew and recent mayor of Los Angeles, William H. Workman.
A couple of images showed other suburban areas, such as East Los Angeles, later renamed Lincoln Heights, and one labeled “Tenderfoot Hill.” Despite some searching, no locale could be located with that moniker, though it might well be in what became the Echo Park/Silver Lake area, another new spot for development during the period.
Exotic elements of Los Angeles include the Plaza, including the historic 1822 church, that was seen as something of a relic of the pre-American past in Los Angeles. Another interesting view is that of Chinatown, which in 1894, was situated east of the Plaza across Alameda Street, where Union Station was built over forty years later. Then, there was a panoramic view from Fort Moore Hill, just west of the Plaza, looking northward toward the Elysian Hills and taking in what had long been called “Sonoratown,” where immigrants from the northern Mexican state of Sonora settled decades ago.
The tourist party did make its way out of town and, while we have for decades now used the term “the Valley” to mean the San Fernando Valley, it is worth noting that tourists had little reason to go there, unless they went to see the remains of Mission San Fernando (San Gabriel, however, was far, far more popular) or were heading north or northwest out of the area.
Instead, in the 19th century, “the Valley” was the San Gabriel Valley. After all, until the Los Angeles Aqueduct opened in 1913, the San Fernando Valley lacked the water to develop much beyond stock raising and dry farmed agriculture, like wheat. But, in the San Gabriel Valley, there was plenty of water from the steep, granitic Sierra Madre (later San Gabriel) Mountains.
This allowed for more diversified agriculture, especially the famed orange groves of the foothill belt from San Gabriel to San Bernardino. It also provided for new towns springing up along the railroad lines that, especially after the Santa Fe transcontinental route traversed the valley to Los Angeles in 1885, brought people and goods back and forth in the region.
Well-known hotels like Sierra Madre Villa and the Raymond catered to well-off tourists and winter birds, while tubercular patients increasingly came to sanitaria to improve their health in the dry, balmy climate. Tourists enjoyed the orange groves, the old mission at San Gabriel, a ride up Mount Lowe, or a visit to the Rancho Santa Anita estate of famed financier “Lucky” Baldwin (who got much of his local land from foreclosing on the Workman and Temple families in their bank failure of the mid-1870s).
So, the album has a few photos of the Baldwin ranch and of orange groves in Pasadena, while none of “the Valley.”
Artifacts like this album are fascinating windows into the mindsets of tourists and what attracted them to greater Los Angeles as well as seeing how different the region was 125 years ago. With the Victorian Fair now concluded, it seemed like a good time to bask a bit in the afterglow with a look at this remarkable document of the late Victorian period.