Wo/Men at Work: A.S. O’Neil Machine Shop, ca. 1900

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, the greater Los Angeles economy was still dominated by agriculture, such as oranges, walnuts, grains, sugar beets, and others.  Whatever industrial development existed was generally small-scale, though as the city grew dramatically in the first few decades of the new century, that came to change as well, as exemplified in a recent post about the building of the Firestone Tire and Rubber company factory.

The photograph from the Homestead’s collection highlighted in this post shows what was still the norm in industry at the turn of the 20th century.  The machine shop and brass foundry of Albert Sidney O’Neil stood at 1720 North San Fernando Road and, as the lettering on the front stated, the firm did all kinds of work from oil tools, to motors, to grinding to machine making.

O’Neil was born in Galveston, Texas in 1864 and appears to have migrated to Los Angeles during the late 1880s when the famed “Boom of the Eighties” was raging in the region.  In his native Galveston, as recorded in the 1880 census, the teenaged O’Neil was a newspaper dealer and he secured work in Los Angeles as a printer and machinist for the Times-Mirror Company, publisher of a relatively new newspaper in the city, the Los Angeles Times.

Though he tried running a book and stationery store downtown for a period, O’Neil remained in the employ of Times-Mirror until about the turn of the century when he formed his own business.  When he set up shop north of downtown, he and his family moved to “East Los Angeles,” now Lincoln Heights.

This cabinet card photograph from the Homestead collection shows a group of gents in front of Albert S. O’Neil’s machine shop on San Fernando Road, north of downtown Los Angeles.  O’Neil is probably second from the right.

Los Angeles was known in the early years of the 20th century as an aggressively “open shop” town, meaning that unions, which were gaining strength and power elsewhere in the country, were hardly securing a foothold in the City of the Angels.  There were some exceptions, such as railroad workers as well as typesetters and typographists for printing companies, including those who did work with some newspapers.

The Times, however, was led by its imperious publisher, Harrison Gray Otis and his son-in-law and future publisher Harry Chandler, and the paper was at the vanguard of the open shop philosophy.  O’Neil came up in the company’s system and was clearly steeped in that way of conducting business.

In June 1902, the Typographical Journal, a union publication, included a reference to O’Neil in a letter from its Los Angeles local #174.  Specifically, the union was working to get companies to pull their advertisements from the paper it called a “rat.”  The correspondence went on to state:

While our sister unions are doing this missionary work on behalf of Los Angeles, they might post in each “machine office” under their control a notice setting forth the fact that A.S. O’Neil of A.S. O’Neil & Co., Los Angeles, who make a specialty of repairing space-bands [devices used in linotype printing to make all lines in the printed text equal in width], is a notorious non-unionist, and a warm supporter of the rat Times.  He has grown fat on the patronage received from union offices throughout the country.  See to it that he accumulates no more fat.

The letter then requested those needing space-band repair to send their inquiries to a competitor, admonishing readers, “whatever you do, don’t forget that O’Neil is a non-unionist.  We leave it to you to do the rest.”

O’Neil’s listing for his machine shop and foundry in a Los Angeles City Directory from the first years of the 20th century is in bold toward the bottom of the second column.

Whether continuing union pressure had anything to do with it or not, O’Neil shuttered his business by 1910 and went out to Cucamonga in San Bernardino County and took up farming for a few years.  In 1910, his old employer, the Times, was the target of an act of domestic terrorism as the paper’s building in Los Angeles was dynamited, causing a significant loss of life.  Radical unionists were charged and convicted for the bombing, though the paper remained unshakable in its anti-union stance.

As for O’Neil, he returned to a variant of metal working by 1920, when he was back in Los Angeles and owned a shop doing “photo metal refining.”  This was a process of reclaiming silver used as an emulsion, or coating, for motion picture film.  As the movie industry was growing by leaps and bounds, O’Neil probably was looking to find a niche in the capture of the silver used in the filming process.

The 1920 federal census listed O’Neil, who previously farmed for a time in Cucamonga near Ontario, as a “photo metal refiner” extracting silver used as an emulsion or coating for motion picture film though his own shop.  Later, he assisted his son-in-law, John J. Nieto, descendant of one of greater Los Angeles’ first Spanish-era settlers, in building contracting.

By 1930, however, O’Neil made another career change, getting into the building contracting business with the husband of his daughter, Grace.  John J. Nieto happened to be a descendant of one of the oldest families in greater Los Angeles.  His ancestor Manuel Nieto was given one of the first land grants in Alta California under Spanish rule.  The 1784 grant to what was known as Rancho Los Nietos was originally over 300,000 acres encompassing much of south and southeast Los Angeles County before it was divided into several ranches (Los Cerritos, Los Alamitos, Santa Gertrudes, etc.) in the mid-1830s.

John’s father, Jesús, was a butcher in San Gabriel, but died young, leaving a widow, Jesús Reyna, to raise a large family, which moved to Los Angeles, eventually settling in the same “East Los Angeles” neighborhood as the O’Neils.   John was also involved in progressive politics in the early 1900s and was a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, which would appear to be a stark contrast with O’Neil’s Republican, anti-union sentiments.  It is also notable that, although O’Neil was from Texas and his parents were from the Deep South (his father from South Carolina and his mother from Alabama), his daughter was in a rare “mixed marriage”.

Albert O’Neil died in 1931, aged 67, and was buried in the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, very close to where he lived most of his adult life.  Although the photo is not labeled, it is probable that he is the gent with the vest and bow-tie, second to the right, given that this is the likeliest candidate of the group to be the “boss.”

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