Victorian Fair Recap: Day One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It was just about a perfect spring day with mild temperatures and a light breeze as we hosted the first of our two-day Victorian Fair this afternoon.  With music, presentations, demonstrations, vendors, house tours and more, there was plenty for visitors to see and do.


This year featured a number of new elements alongside our traditional elements.  One, developed by my colleagues in public programs, was “The Vital Apothecary,” a display next to our native garden that highlighted concepts of medicines popular in the Victorian era.  A backdrop evoking an apothecary (a sort of drug store) and a couple of tables examined elements of medicinal thinking in the late 19th century.


One portion, titled “Wash Your Hands Like a Victorian,” looked at methods of the period, such as tallow soap made from cow fat, the soap plant used by native peoples in this area, and soap berries, which are being used now.  Examples were placed on a table for visitors to try.


On the apothecary “walls” were boards giving some information about homeopathy, herbalism, vaccinations, era remedies, and theories about the transmission of diseases (miasma [bad air] vs. germ theory).  The text also discussed the tremendous advances in medical science during the era, which ranged from the accession to the throne in 1837 of Queen Victoria of England to her death sixty-four years later. There were also some cards on a table with brief snippets of info about dealing with consumption, or tuberculosis (move to a dry climate like that of greater Los Angeles).


While we’ve had stickers handed out to visitors to get some idea of event attendance, a relatively new approach is to use photographs from the collection for the stickers and then to let visitors know something about the subject matter.  This year, six stickers were used with very wide ranging subjects.


One was an image of cyclist Frank Cooper, who lived in Monrovia and did some competitive cycling in the 1890s when riding bicycles was widely popular.  Another was a portrait of Elena Mancera, a young Latina actress and dancer who performed at Los Angeles theaters in the late 1870s.  A third was a portrait of two Chinese men in traditional clothing and the image was used as a contrast to the horrific massacre of 19 Chinese males in Los Angeles in October 1871.


Other images from the collection were used for a tableaux vivant, a concept popular in the Victorian period in which people would pose for photographs in imitation of those seen in popular works of art.  We invited visitors to take their own photos using poses in the images from our collection that were placed on easels in an area next to La Casa Nueva.  A couple of examples of the historic phots are shown here.


Exhibits in the Workman House also took a different approach than at past fairs as they revolved around the health theme developed elsewhere (such as at the apothecary.)  My colleagues worked on exhibiting artifacts from the collection reflecting Victorian-era health issues and boards discussed these matters in interesting and eye-catching ways.


One particularly dramatic example was a Russian flu epidemic that swept through greater Los Angeles in the winter of 1891-92 and took the lives, in just a few weeks, of Nicolasa Workman, her daughter Antonia Margarita Workman de Temple, and Thomas W. Temple, the grandson and son of the two women.  Original funeral notices for the three were displayed.  Another board discussed Thomas’ brother, Francis, who suffered from tuberculosis and died from the disease in summer 1888 (in fact, it was said he died in the same room in the Workman House in which he was born forty years earlier!)  In a pedestal case was a letter written by Francis in which he mentions his going to Arizona for “the cure” to his malady.



In an adjacent room, tables were set up so visitors could play a game developed by my colleague Isis Quan and which concerned travelers on the Old Spanish Trail (which the Workman family took from New Mexico as they migrated to California in 1841.)


The game reflects the ability of players to survive difficult conditions including the presence of bandits, bad weather, a shortage of food and water, and illness.  Players began in New Mexico with 100 health points and, hopefully, made it to the coast with enough points to survive (though some don’t!)



Another new feature to the fair was the performance of Victorian-era classical music by the orchestra of Hsi Lai Temple, which happens to be largest Buddhist temple in the western hemisphere and is a neighbor of ours in Hacienda Heights.  Composed largely of children, but including a few adults, the orchestra performed beautifully to visitors who gathered on the west lawn of La Casa Nueva to hear them.


Tomorrow, we’ll cover other elements (music, tours, demonstrators, and more) of the Victorian Fair, expecting the continuation of fine weather and the fact that Sundays usually mean larger crowds than Saturdays.


Leave a Reply