Through the Viewfinder: Spring Street, Los Angeles, 1897

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Today’s “Through the Viewfinder” entry is a remarkable stereoscopic photograph, published by the Keystone View Company and copyrighted in 1897, of Spring Street at 2nd Street, in Los Angeles.  The image is remarkable in capturing a city in the throes of significant urban expansion at a time when this was becoming a bigger element of American society generally.

Spring Street was the commercial thoroughfare of the city, which was at just about 100,000 residents at the time, and this is reflected by the coterie of commercial buildings and the crowded sidewalks teeming with pedestrians, though there are surprisingly few vehicles (horse-drawn, of course, though the first “horseless carriage” was driven in town that year.)

The street is decorated with flags, banners, palm fronds, and an interesting decorative tower on the sidewalk for Desmond’s, a haberdashery (hat store, but which also sold men’s furnishings—that is, hosiery and underwear) of note in the city.  There is a sign on the pole in the foreground center advertising for rail tickets sold in the adjacent building, perhaps where Desmond’s was located–note the ad shown here that mentions the business selling tickets.

SV 4314 Spring Street Los Angeles Cal USA 2013.382.1.1
This stereoscopic photograph of Spring Street at 2nd Street in Los Angeles was published by Keystone View Company and has a copyright date of 1897.

Speaking of Desmond’s, the photo has some interest for those interested in late 19th century clothing, as represented in the sartorial choices of some of the pedestrians, principally those at the bottom who are in the light, rather than the dark shadows cast by the commercial buildings lining Spring Street.  Women’s clothing in particular is of note because of the variety of blouses, skirts and, especially, hats.

It is not immediately clear what the hoopla was for until you get a gander at the banner on the front of the streetcar playing a route from the Baker Block on Main Street, where the 101 Freeway is now, to the Southern Pacific railroad depot.

The words “La Fiesta’ are visible, which both identifies the reason for the decoration and the approximate time of year when the image was taken.  Concocted by commercial interests to promote tourism and the bottom lines of local business, La Fiesta de Los Angeles debuted in 1894 with all kinds of activities over the course of several days that had a surface-level element of celebrating the pre-American period of the region.

Immensely popular, the event included a fiesta queen and her court; music performances; a grand parade, including “Chinese in gorgeous Oriental costumes and their sacred dragon of 500 feet, operated by 100 celestials”; athletic events, such as “Indian and native Spanish sports,” whatever than entailed; an illuminated pageant spotlighting a “Legend of Flowers” featuring twenty floats; a floral parade of much larger scope than the pageant; a water carnival and fireworks show; and a children’s day augmented by “patriotic exercises” and a “flag-raising.”

Los Angeles Times advertisement from 2 July 1897 for Desmond’s with an offer of free rail tickets with a $3 purchase at the store, which was located between 1st and 2nd streets on Spring at the left side of the photo.

La Fiesta was held in 1897 between 20-24 April, so this seems to provide a somewhat narrow time frame in which the photo was taken, presumably during or a little before the festivities were conducted.  The event continued to be held until about the period of the First World War and then was resurrected for one last time as part of the 150th birthday celebration for Los Angeles in 1931.

While it is natural to focus on the activity at and appearance of the street level, it is striking to raise the vision towards the top of the photograph and see the jumble of wires crisscrossing the thoroughfare.  Providing power for the streetcar system, electric lights (only introduced within the previous decade or so), telephone service, and for telegraphs, this web of wires is reflective of the transformative power of technology in late 19th century America.

While certainly not aesthetically pleasing (then again, much else of urban life at the time wasn’t either, including the deposits left by the horses pulling those coaches and wagons that offended the olfactory sense!), the wooden poles and their connective lines provided a level of instantaneous communication, illumination, and power for rapid transit that added immensely to the convenience of life.  Twenty or so years prior, the lines would not have been there (at least, almost all of them), but the benefits they conferred would also have been absent.

Information from the 28 January 1897 issue of the Los Angeles Herald about the upcoming La Fiesta de Los Angeles, held from 20-24 April.  Decorations and a banner on the streetcar in the above photo were for the event.

So, this striking view is, on several levels, an excellent snapshot of late Victorian era Los Angeles.  One of the great things about the “Through the Viewfinder” series here is the opportunity to see photographs from the Homestead’s collection that show the transformation of greater Los Angeles from the 1870s through the 1920s and the next entry will take us into the first decade of the 20th century.

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