by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This morning, the Homestead’s Book Club met to talk about Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, a non-fiction novel revolving around the World’s Fair of 1893 held in Chicago with two distinct story lines involving famed architect Daniel Burnham and his work for the fair and serial killer H.H. Holmes who stalked his victims as they attended the event.
As I normally do, I gave a presentation to the group in which artifacts from the Homestead’s collection relating to the book are used as a springboard for a discussion about greater Los Angeles and, when possible, the Workman and Temple families and their connections to the book and its themes.
I began by noting that, in 1851-52, when William Workman made his only return visit to his native England and his hometown of Clifton in the north near the Scottish border, he spent some time at the Crystal Palace Exhibition, also known as “The Great Exhibition”, the first international exhibition to highlight manufactured items.
Workman must have been astounded at the changes in his home country since he’d left nearly thirty years before in 1822, as well as the contrast to his life in the last decade in greater Los Angeles, which was a town of just a few thousand that was the center of a cattle ranching region and which had almost no manufacturing base.
By the time the World’s Fair was held, greater Los Angeles had been transformed. In 1885, a direct transcontinental railroad line built by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe reached the area. In the next few years, the “Boom of the 1880s” was launched which brought many new residents to the area, both in Los Angeles and in outlying suburbs. Many of these arrivals were looking to partake in the region’s thriving agricultural industry.
The local economy, largely dependent on wheat farming and grape growing since the decline of cattle in the 1860s, was transitioning to a greater focus on citrus fruits, especially the orange, especially as grapes were hit by a devastating disease. Shipping products out of the area was great facilitated by more railroad competition, thanks to the arrival of the Santa Fe, but also because of the growing use, by the 1890s, of the refrigerated box car.
Even though the Boom of the Eighties went bust by the end of the decade and the Nineties included several drought years and a national depression that erupted the year of the Fair, Los Angeles experienced a doubling of population from 50,000 to a little over 100,000, while the county went just a tad over 100,000 to some 170,000. This meant more city and suburb dwellers, but also an expansion of growers and farmers.
It was not until after the turn of the century, however, that the region experienced its next period of staggering growth, with the city and county populations roughly tripling. So, even if the promotion of greater Los Angeles at the 1893 World’s Fair did produce some results in growth in the immediate future, it can be argued that the effects were very much felt in those first years of the new 20th century.
Those promotional efforts were carried out by a number of groups, but the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, which became a mighty engine of marketing and boosterism for the region, came into its own in its planning and execution of publicity during the Fair.
Frank Wiggins, its dynamic superintendent of events, came up with a larger-than-life-size 850-pound elephant made of walnuts that was a major attraction. There was also a massive orange made of the fruit that stood out to fair attendees and the orange, thanks also to the efforts of the Sunkist cooperative association, became the preeminent symbol of the region to outsiders.
So, as the Fair was an opportunity for America to show the world its rising economic power as the 19th century drew to a close and the 20th century loomed, it was also a chance for greater Los Angeles to demonstrate its attractiveness to future residents, farmers and growers, and manufacturers.
Of course, in 1893, the problem of sourcing enough water to meet the needs of the growing region had not been addressed, but the Los Angeles Aqueduct project, completed in 1913, did provide the solution. In addition, improved shipping facilities were badly needed and the “Harbor Fight” that came soon after the Fair led to the San Pedro/Wilmington facility being chosen over Santa Monica as the area’s port facility with federal funding secured to move the work along.
This meant that the first three decades of the 1900s included more spectacular development and growth, up to 1.2 million in Los Angeles and 2.2 million in the county. The parallel push for more residents, meant more land needed for housing tracts in existing communities and new towns elsewhere, but the surge in agricultural production brought a conflict in land use. At the same time, heavy manufacturing came to the region increasingly, including the production of automobiles, aircraft, steel, and more. The period also included the spectacular growth of the Hollywood film industry.
By 1930, when the Homestead’s interpretive era ends, the effects of those promotional efforts that began with the 1893 World’s Fair and were refined, evolved and matured in succeeding decades, were amply demonstrated in the region’s transformation.
However, there were significant social, economic and political issues that went beyond the amazing statistics trumpeting growth. Concentrations of wealth and income disparity, the fight over labor unions and reforms in the workplace, food safety and more that were largely ignored or tilted toward the interests of the wealthy and powerful in the “Gilded Age” of the 1890s became more prominent during the “Progressive Era” which followed, even if the results of reform movements were generally mixed.
Another crucial question for us at the Homestead is to look at how the history of the region before 1930 that we interpret is relevant to current and future concerns. For example, the booster attitude represented in the promotion of greater Los Angeles at Chicago in 1893 and afterward reflected the feeling that there was plenty of room (and, assuming more water was found, other material) for seemingly endless growth.
In recent decades, however, those assumptions have been tested as to their limits. It isn’t just the lack of open space for new development or the questionable supply of adequate water; it also has to do with combating pollution and climate change, building new or maintaining old infrastructure, adaptations to technological change and many others. The boundless optimism of the latter part of the Homestead’s interpretive era, especially from about 1890 onward, needs to be critically compared and contrasted to these current concerns. In coming years, our interpretation of pre-1930 history will increasingly look to do just that.