Wo/Men at Work in a Diamond Walnuts Packing House, 1920s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The orange may have been the dominant agricultural product of greater Los Angeles for many decades from the late 19th to the mid 20th centuries, but walnuts were certainly a major crop in the region during about the same period.

Actually, the black walnut (nogal in Spanish) is a native in California and where I live in Carbon Canyon, between Orange and San Bernardino counties, wild walnut trees are found in many places.  One of our local ranchos from the Spanish and Mexican era was “Rancho Los Nogales,” which bordered Rancho La Puente on the east in what are now the cities of Diamond Bar and, yes, Walnut.  Nogales Street is a major north-south roadway from the top of the Puente Hills in Rowland Heights to the elevations of the San Jose Hills in Walnut.

Later, however, what has been called the “English” walnut, also known as the “Persian” because of its roots (!) in what is now Iran and which then spread in a wide area from the Balkans of Eastern Europe to the Himalayas of Eastern Asia, was introduced for commercial purposes.

The walnut was brought to Spanish California by Roman Catholic missionaries in some of the missions.  The value of the nut was limited, though, until Joseph Sexton, who lived in Goleta north of Santa Barbara, planted a grove considered the state’s first successful commercial endeavor.

Within a short period, most California counties had English walnut groves and there were some 30,000 trees growing in the state.  A few of these were right here at the Homestead, introduced by William Workman and son-in-law F.P.F. Temple, who experimented with them, too, on Rancho La Merced (modern South El Monte and Montebello).  Temple had several sons who continued the practice.  Francis W. Temple, who maintained a 75-acre remnant of the ranch, continued with walnut growing while also successfully making wine from vineyards his grandfather planted.

Walnut packing house panorama 2
This section of a large panoramic photograph by Huddleston Photo Company of Los Angeles from the Homestead’s collection, shows dozens of employees of a Diamond Walnuts packing plant somewhere in the region.

John H. Temple raised the nuts on his 130-acre ranch on the Rancho Potrero de Felipe Lugo (this is now the location of the Whittier Narrows Nature Center in South El Monte) and Walter P. Temple had extensive orchards at the Homestead during the 1920s.

Southern California, from the 1880s through the 1920s, was the center of the walnut industry, producing some 95% of the state’s output.  Much of this was raised in the San Gabriel Valley and, in the early 1920s, the town of Puente (now La Puente) had the distinction of having the world’s largest walnut packing house.

By the early 1940s, however, plummeting prices from the Great Depression, but also the extensive invasiveness of the codling moth, led to the near destruction of the industry and rapid suburban development played its part, too.  The raising of walnuts shifted north into the San Joaquin Valley, where 99% of all the nuts grown in the U.S. are raised.

The photo shown here, which comes from the Homestead’s collection, shows a Diamond-brand walnut packing house somewhere in the area from the 1920s.  Diamond, like Sunkist for oranges, was created as a cooperative of indepedent walnut growers, in 1912. With the power of cooperative marketing, Diamond was the first to institute a national advertising campaign for California walnuts by the end of that decade.

Walnut packing house panorama
Here’s another section of this remarkable view of the overwhelmingly female workforce at the plant.

In 1926, the distinctive red diamond logo was stamped on each premium nut that entered the commercial market.  Cookbooks, magazine advertisements and other marketing materials put the walnut into greater prominence.

This photo, taken by the Huddleston Photo Company of Los Angeles, did not have any inscriptions identifying the location or the people, but it was clearly a significant operation with the two details showing a large number of workers.

Obviously, the gents in suits at the front of the group standing at the building’s entrance were managers.  Other men, who were conspicuously placed in the front row and at the center, were likely supervisors and the like.  However, women clearly did the bulk of the work in sorting, packing, washing, and grading the nuts.  Note they all wore identifcal uniforms of white smocks and headgear.

The majority of the persons shown were white, but there was a significant contingent of Latino employees as judged by scanning the faces under magnification.  There were, however, no Asian or black laborers to be found among the large group.

This photo is a graphic illustration of just how dramatically the role of working women had changed by the 1920s.  The presence of so many women just wouldn’t have been as marked a few decades prior, but the great expansion of regional agriculture, changes in how farming took place, the specialization of roles in the picking and packing of fruits and nuts, and other factors, were integral to the changes that took place.

Check back for more great images from the museum’s holdings showing working men and women in greater Los Angeles through the 1920s.

2 thoughts

  1. Paul – I look forward to these writings. Thank you for opening the door to so many things the people that came before us shared. Keep up the good work.

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