Victorian Fair Themes: A Letter from Los Angeles, 18 April 1880

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

With our annual spring festival, the Victorian Fair, coming up the weekend after next, here is the first of a series of posts connected to themes from the era as reflected through artifacts from our collection.

This entry highlights a letter, written by Jonathan and Mary Hildreth from Los Angeles to their grandddaughter Emma and her husband Henry Mills and dated on this day in 1880.  Often correspondence from this area talks about the fine condition of things, either from the personal perspective or about what made the region so attractive.

This and the next three images comprise a 18 April 1880 letter from Los Angeles, written by Jonathan and Mary Hildreth to grandchildren in Hannibal, Missouri.

In this case, though, the Hildreths wrote quite the opposite, which is striking for a couple of reasons.  First, Los Angeles was generally a place people migrated to because of opportunity and the growing population of the city and area, especially after the Civil War, is testament to the appeal of the region.

Yet, in 1880 the greater Los Angeles area was in a rare condition. An economic downturn began five years earlier with a panic over silver mine stock devaluation at Virginia City, Nevada and then spread to San Francisco (the economic capital of California) and, finally, to Los Angeles, and which included the failure of the Temple and Workman bank.   This came along as a long depression nationally, which started in 1873, continued.


So, by the end of the 1870s, Los Angeles was in a severe doldrum and the Hildreths appear to be reflecting much of this in their missive. For example, Jonathan wrote,

We are boath midling well for Old Children, Still we have Spels of fealing quite Boorley [poorly?] at times when we have So little to do that hardley pays our way.   But we do all we can git to do.  I attend to my Shop every day repareing Some Furniture, filing Sawes, Some little carpenter work and so on.  Mother dose her Own work and washing to help along. So we go, But this is the hardist Contry to git along in that I have ever Seen and we are not alone in that way hear.  Thare is many young folks woese off than we are, and our is worse than I like and gitting old make sthings look more Blue.

It got to the point where Jonathan wrote “I would soon git back on the Emagrant Train . . . for times is so hard, I can onley make about 75 cents Per Day.”  He offered what seemed like a wry joke, stating “if I Could make grey hear [hair] to git a way I would not feal So Bad about it.  But we have to take things as they Come good or Bad.”  He concluded by noting that Mary “has gone to Montie [El Monte, where a daughter lived] today,” but she evidently returned soon, because she added her own part to the letter.

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Unfortunately, Mary Hildreth’s handwriting is exceedingly hard to decipher, though she explained this by telling her granddaughter and her husband that “I have jest got don washing and I am so tired I can hardly write.”  She followed by stating that she wanted to see the couple and their baby boy (a point also raised by Jonathan), noting “I do hope the lord will open a way for us to Com back, yet it is so discour[ag]ings to be so disapinted but we will live in hopes to get back yet this Summer.”  But, she echoed her husband’s desire and lack of optimism about returning back east, writing “the prospect of our geting back Seeames rather discour[ag]ing at the presant.”

Some of the pessimism may have been the dire economic times, but also the advancing age of the Hildreths.  Jonathan was 75 years old, an advanced age for the time and Mary was not much younger, being four years his junior.  He was a native of Cape May, on the coast in New Jersey, but moved to the “Old Northwest,” meaning Ohio, when he was twelve years old.  where he married Mary in September 1822 when teens and the couple settled in the Cincinnati area, raising three daughters.  Jonathan was a machinist, which is evident from the way he discussed his trade (even in his mid-seventies) in the letter.


After some years there, the Hildreths, who had several children, took a typical migration route (used, for example, by John Rowland, who lived in Ohio for much of his youth and did much the same thing) along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.  Jonathan followed his trade on steamboats that plied the Mississippi and Red rivers and was aboard vessels that carried troops under General (and later, president) Zachary Taylor down the Mississippi on the way to Mexico during the Mexican-American War.

For a period, the family resided in the river town of Hannibal, Missouri, best known as the hometown of Samuel L. Clemens, the famed journalist and writer known as Mark Twain.  In fact, Emma and Henry Mills were living in Hannibal when they received the letter.

A couple of months after the letter was written, the Hildreths were enumerated in the 1880 census, where they resided with “zanjero” [keeper of city-owned water ditches] Stephen Francis at 6th Street and Fort Street [now Broadway] in Los Angeles.
The Hildreths migrated out to Los Angeles in the mid-1870s and the reason was likely that they had a daughter, Sarah Bennett who came to this region by the beginning of the decade not long after her marriage in Hannibal.  Perhaps they also sought the temperate coastal climate for their advancing age, as well.  In any case, as the letter clearly shows, the grass was definitely not greener.

Yet, the couple remained in the Los Angeles area, perhaps with their lot improving with the famed Boom of the 1880s that erupted when a direct transcontinental railroad line reached the region mid-decade, and later moved to Pasadena, where they were residing when Jonathan died in 1890.  His passing merited an obituary of some length, much of which has been mentioned above.  Being what was claimed as the oldest member in good standing of the International Order of Odd Fellows, a very popular fraternal order of the day, Hildreth was buried in the section of the Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena that was reserved for the brethren of the IOOF.

Hildreth obit LA_Times_Apr_29__1890_
Los Angeles Herald, 29 April 1890.

The Hildreth letter is a rare and interesting document commenting on the hard economic times of Los Angeles between its first two boom periods, especially for an elderly couple that likely came to the area expecting to enjoy something of a leisurely last phase in life, but, instead, found the situation to be much more difficult than expected.  For a great many elderly people today, the sentiments expressed by the Hildreths might ring too true.

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