Book Club Discussion on Greater Los Angeles from 1877-1920

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Today, the Homestead’s Non-Fiction Book Club discussed Jackson Lears’ Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920 and, while I usually, when speaking to the group at the end of their session, bring in artifacts from the museum’s collection to discuss elements of greater Los Angeles tied to the themes of the book, today I took a different tack.

Mainly this was because trying to find a few representative objects to cover the broad time period and all of the key concepts that were rolling through my mind when writing an outline seemed fruitless.  Instead, I took the opportunity to put together some thoughts that could serve as an early blueprint for how the Homestead could interpret the forty-odd years that fall within two of our focus decades in our interpretive period.

That broader era we deal with is 1830 to 1930 and for ease of presentation, focus, and comparison and contrast, as well as representation of key elements of the history of the Workman and Temple families, we’ve chosen the 1840s, 1870s, and 1920s as the highlighted decades within that century.

Obviously, the 1850s and 1860s are important decades and so are the 1880s, 1890s, 1900s and 1910s.  In working to build a collection of artifacts over nearly two decades, I’ve always looked to the three focus decades as emblematic of our interpretive period, but also have appreciated the need to acquire objects from those other decades, too, to help bridge those three and provide context for them.

View Of Los Angeles 2005.52.1.3
This circa 1878 stereoscopic photograph by A.C. Varela shows Los Angeles just after its first boom period ended with a bust that included the failure of the Temple and Workman bank.  All the photos here are from the Homestead’s holdings.

So, with Lears setting his interpretive period with the end of Reconstruction, a dozen years after the conclusion of the Civil War, up through 1920, that basically covers the long “interregnum” between our central decades of the 1870s and 1920s.  Needless to say, a tremendous amount of important history, regionally and locally (meaning the Homestead and the families), took place that followed from what happened in the Seventies and laid the groundwork for what was to come in the Twenties.

For example, 1877 was a year of economic malaise in greater Los Angeles as it was for much of the country, still reeling from the national depression that broke out four years before.  In this area, the collapse of California’s economy in 1875-76 included the local failure of the bank of Temple and Workman.  This ended a run of about seven or eight years in which sustained population and economic growth took place in our region.  Recovery, however, would take almost a decade.

Still, two major events took place locally in 1876: the completion of the Southern Pacific railroad line from the north to Los Angeles, which marked a turning point in transportation in the area, and the bringing in of a major oil well in modern Santa Clarita that ushered in the region’s oil industry.

While it did take time for the local economic picture to improve, that was largely assisted by another transportation milestone: the completion of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe’s transcontinental rail line to Los Angeles in 1885.  What followed was a much larger period of growth than the one of the late Sixties and first half of the Seventies, as the Boom of the Eighties burst forth.

Los Angeles Business District 2005.460.1.1
By the 1910s, Los Angeles, with its successive booms only somewhat occasionally and temporarily hindered by economic downturns, was a major metropolitan city.

It so happened that the mayor of Los Angeles during the peak of the boom, in 1887 and 1888, was William H. Workman, nephew of William and Nicolasa Workman, owners of the Homestead.  So, while one branch of the family was “cut down” by the failure of the Temple and Workman bank more than ten years before, another was on the rise.

William H. Workman went on to serve as Los Angeles city treasurer from 1901-1907; his daughter Mary Julia was a rare example of a woman with a significant public presence during the first few decades of the 20th century in social work and local government, including a tenure on the Civil Service Commission; and son Boyle served on the Los Angeles City Council for most of the 1920s, including a losing campaign for mayor in 1929.

Although the Boom of the 1880s went bust by the end of the decade and another national depression erupted in 1893, while drought was common locally, there was still growth in greater Los Angeles.  I mentioned a couple of key events from that period: the development of a high-quality refrigerated box car by fruit dealer Edwin T. Earl that helped revolutionize the shipment of oranges and lemons from the region to other parts of the United States and the opening of the Los Angeles oil field by Charles Canfield and Edward Doheny, who used modest means and primitive equipment to do so.

Clearly, the citrus and oil industries were prime movers in the skyrocketing economic growth of the region at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th.  The first decade of the new century saw another burst of development activity, in which the automobile, the airplane, the beginnings of the film industry and growth in industry and manufacturing were among crucial components.

Los Angeles Area Oil Field 2010.64.1.1
The 1890s opening of the Los Angeles Oil Field was a major impetus for the growth of this important regional industry.

At the same time, the Gilded Age was not just a time of enormous gains by the wealthiest in American society, it was also a period of turmoil with labor and unions, ethnic and racial tension, inequality of wealth, and concerns about workplace safety and health in such areas as food and drugs.

So, a populist movement morphing in some ways into Progressivism became a significant engine of change nationally and locally.  Sometimes, as in the case of labor, the unions did not gain much of a foothold in the face of determined opposition from the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, the Los Angeles Times and other powerful forces.

In other cases, though, there were decided transformations in the arenas of participatory democracy, notably in 1911, when the initiative, recall and referendum were introduced in California and when workplace safety and the development of standards in food and drug production were making significant headway.

Conflicts between labor and capitalists came to a dramatic head in 1910 when the headquarters of the Times was bombed.  Remarkably, Job Harriman, the Socialist candidate for Los Angeles, might well have captured the position of chief executive but for the fallout from the terrible act of domestic terrorism that killed over twenty people.

0918121 Chinese Men Ferguson Alley Chinatown 2015.54.1.1
The presence of ethnic minorities during the 1880-1920 period brought about often terrible treatment by the dominant American and European population.  Here are Chinese men walking in Ferguson Alley in the original Chinatown of Los Angeles where Union Station is situated now.

By the end of the 1910s and through the patriotic fervor of America’s involvement in the First World War, there was a swing back on the political spectrum toward conservatism, so that, by 1920, pronounced changes were underway that made the Roaring Twenties one of political dominance by conservative Republicans.

In a city as large and rapidly growing as Los Angeles those first two decades of the twentieth century saw other fascinating developments, a few of which can be hinted at here.  One was the shifting attitudes about race and ethnicity.  In the 1870s, the Chinese were viewed as a significant threat to the status quo, in terms of perceived labor competition as well as views of an alien culture not capable of assimilation in American society.  In 1882, an act was passed in Congress that curtailed Chinese immigration.

Then came a movement against another segment of Asians who came to America, namely, the Japanese.  Here, too, there were concerns about a “yellow peril” and steps were taken in the first years of the new century to limit their migration, including a national Gentleman’s Agreement in 1907 and a state alien land law several years later.

In both cases, labor issues complicated the racist attitudes toward the two groups, but, by 1910, the fomenting of the Mexican Revolution brought a significant migration of Mexicans into the region.  This certainly helped with the labor needs of farmers, ranchers and others and, while there were definitely racist attitudes towards them, there were also expressions, as noted in the recent post here, on the Americanization report from 1920, that Mexicans could be assimilated and “Americanized” in ways that the Chinese and Japanese could not.

RPPC Religion Revival Sermon Angelus Temple Aimee Semple McPhers
New arenas of religious expression marked the first few decades of the 20th century including the rise of Aimee Semple McPherson who arrived in Los Angeles in the late 1910s and was a very popular, if sometimes controversial, figure for years afterward.

While economic times were good, there was that limited level of toleration, but, once the Great Depression broke out in 1929, there was a demonstrable shift in attitude including deportations of many Mexican nationals and some American citizens to Mexico.

The role of women also was talked about this morning, whether it be the important roles they played in temperance movements leading to local and national prohibition of alcohol sales and consumption—particularly with this year being the centennial of Prohibition; the growing movement of woman suffrage, culminating in state voting rights in 1911 and those for national elections by 1920; and in some limited fields of labor and politics.  As we commemorate the centennial of the 19th Amendment next year, we’ll definitely explore more of the dynamics of woman suffrage, locally and nationally.

There are other notable areas of exploration hinted at this morning, including a widening diversity of religious and spiritual expression in the first decades of the 20th century, whether it be the growth of evangelical and Pentecostal religious groups, spiritual and mystical alternatives, and others.

Summarizing this morning some of the changes that followed the end of greater Los Angeles’ first boom after 1876 all the way through the remarkable transformations of the following four decades that lead to the 1920s felt like a mere hinting at what could be explored at the Homestead in future programs (events, lectures, workshops, and more) and through social media platforms.

San Gabriel Orange Grove 2007.272.1.1
The citrus industry, mainly oranges, was a major part of the regional economy all through the 1880-1920 era.  Here is a photo of an orchard near San Gabriel.

Developing the outline and discussing it with the book club’s participants gave me the impression of a tentative pitch for what the museum’s interpretation can do with that long period from the 1880s through the 1910s, so we’ll see where some of these concepts and others not brought up will take us!

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