Wo/Men at Work: Klein-Simpson Fruit Company Warehouse Workers, ca. late 1910s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The first major industrial core of Los Angeles emerged in the area east of Alameda Street and west of the Los Angeles River and included a produce district that counted as one its major firms, the Klein-Simpson Fruit Company.

The company was originally two separate entities.  Frank Simpson, a native of New York, operated a fruit company under his own name from about 1890 to 1910, and the firm was considered one of the largest produce and fruit businesses on the West Coast, according to a 1911 isue of California Fruit News.

Meantime, Arthur Klein, who hailed from Hungary, began his fruit retail and wholesale business on the historic Plaza about 1893.  As the industrial area to the southeast expanded, Klein moved his operation to Ninth and Los Angeles streets by the end of the century.

The Simpson firm was one of the prime movers in the establishment of the Los Angeles Public Market Company, which built a large commercial structure on East Sixth Street near Alameda Street.  A City of Los Angeles historic resources report also indicated that the Frank Simpson Fruit Company was instrumental in the creation of another public market at 9th and San Pedro streets.  This was a massive six-acre project called the City Market of Los Angeles spanning from 9th to 11th and from San Pedro to San Julian and the facility exists today more than a century later.

Klein Simpson Fruit Company Los Angeles 2007.132.1.1
This circa late 1910s photo from the Homestead’s collection shows employees of the Klein-Simpson Fruit Company, Los Angeles’ largest wholesale fruit and produce firm, in the warehouse.

Meantime, by 1911, Klein took over the Simpson concern and renamed it as the Klein-Simpson Fruit Company, with Frank Simpson’s nephew, Joseph, staying on as general manager.  The general wholesale business was the largest in Los Angeles with some 125 employees by the end of the decade and capable of shipping several dozen carloads of fruit per day.

In 1918, the Klein-Simpson Fruit Company became a major player in the “banana republic” in Guatemala, at a time when American economic interests, primarily in fruits, became dominant in Latin America.  The firm purchased 5,500 acres at Port San Jose on the Pacific Coast southwest of Guatemala City and planted about 2,000 of those acres to bananas. The company then changed its name to the California-Guatemala Fruit Corporation, about the time that the first shipments of bananas from its holdings were being shipped to California, but the company kept its Los Angeles-area orchards, as well.  Shortly thereafter, in 1923, the Mexican-American Fruit and Steamship Corporation took control of California-Guatemala, as giant companies aggressively moved to assert more control in Latin America.

By 1930, United Fruit Company absorbed the California-Guatemala Fruit Company into its vast empire in Latin America and continued to utilize the Los Angeles properties for fruit growing until flooding during the decade led to the abandonment of the local orchards.

The photograph highlighted here from the Homestead’s collection shows several employees in the Klein-Simpson Fruit Company warehouse.  They include a shipping clerk in his office at the left and several men just outside that space next to the industrial scale.

A couple of the latter appear to be office workers, judging by their clothing, including vests, dress shirts and ties, while a few others are obviously warehousemen with aprons, workshirts and, in one case, heavy boots.  One man has his hand on a pallet jack near large stacks of wooden fruit crates, including some for apples.

In the background, through one of a set of windows in an upstairs office overlooking the warehouse is a gent in a dark suit–perhaps it is general manager Joseph Simpson.  A little oddity is the mounting of what looks like palm tree fronds on a pillar in the right foreground, a reference, perhaps, to the Latin American part of the business?

The old industrial area of Los Angeles is under great transformation.  More residential units, such as lofts, are moving into the district and other types of businesses are also established there, while the flower and produce districts have still hung on.

The Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market, operating at 1601 E. Olympic Boulevard, the extension of 9th Street at Central Avenue, is still operating and its Facebook page can be accessed here.

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