Museum Director Musings on a Victorian Christmas Parlor Display at the Workman House

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

My colleagues Michelle Villarreal, Melanie Tran and Robert Barron finished up an excellent display today at the Workman House, with a vignette showing a Victorian-era Christmas parlor scene that takes us back in time to the late 19th century.


The exhibit features original furniture used by John H. Temple, who owned the home in the 1890s and was the grandson of the house’s builders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste, and his wife Anita Davoust.  The settee, arm chair and side chair, part of a suite, were donated by descendants of John and Anita back in the late 1980s and have been used for our holiday vignette for a number of years.


On the furniture are some original artifacts from the Homestead’s collection, including late 19th century Christmas cards, children’s Christmas books from the 1880s and 1890s, an 1870s edition of Charles Dickens’ classic novella A Christmas Carol; and even a top hat owned by William Henry Workman, nephew of William and Nicolasa, who was the founder of Boyle Heights in the mid-1870s and the mayor of Los Angeles in 1887 and 1888.


In the corner of the room, a live tree, trimmed according to period images by Refugio Flores, supervisor of the company that takes care of the museum’s grounds, stands on a table and is decorated with replica ornaments and candles (of course, a bucket of water is placed right next to the table because fires were not uncommon with lit candles on trees).  A few wrapped gifts sit under the tree, as well.


A nearby bench has some reproduced handouts relating to Victorian-era Christmas celebrations, including a lithograph from a magazine showing what table-top trees looked like.  Well, except the perfectly symmetrical branches of the tree are not possible in real life–Refugio certainly did the best he could with a real tree!


Advertisements from 1870s Los Angeles newspapers included the availabiility of fir trees from local mountains, as well as seasonal balls at Wilson’s Hall in Los Angeles and, in nearby El Monte, Jones’ hotel and Forst’s hotel.


One of the great things about the Homestead is that we have two historic houses, the Workman House and La Casa Nueva, that can take visitors on a visual excursion through the history of greater Los Angeles from the 1840s through the 1920s.


In another room of the Workman House, we discuss pre-American Christmas celebrations, focused on religious observances, passion plays and feasting and then segue into the Victorian era with the display shown here.


Then, at La Casa Nueva, holiday decorations redolent of the Twenties show how much Christmas had evolved over the decades.  Comparing and contrasting the exhibits in both homes and then establishing connections to what we do today helps develop a solid understanding of change over time, whether this is with holiday celebrations or any number of topics throughout the year.

The Homestead is open for public tours Wednesday through Sunday with visits to the Workman House at 1:00 and 3:00 and to La Casa Nueva at 2:00 and 4:00, except for a series of special weekend events that can be read about here.

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