Through the Viewfinder: Photographs Showing Transformations in Greater Los Angeles, 1870-1930

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This afternoon was the last of three presentations in the “Through the Viewfinder” series lectures on regional photography and focused on photos from the Homestead’s collection that reflect transformations in many areas of life in greater Los Angeles from 1870 to 1930.  The images included views of Los Angeles, suburban areas, locations of economic development, places for leisure and tourism, schools, churches and other religious and spiritual facilities, a range of vehicles for transportation and more.

In all, about one hundred representative photographs from our collection of over 8,000 images were shown and the formats highlighted were stereoscopic, cabinet, snapshots and a rare example of a cyanotype (a print with a bluish tint that was fairly popular in the early 20th century.)

Los Angeles Street 2003.246.1.2
A photo from the Homestead’s collection showing City Hall on Broadway circa 1900.  Note the horse-drawn vehicles, the man with the bicycle and the variety of commercial structures.

Selections of images included those accompanying a general “setting the scene” section that outlined broad changes in population; the growth of Los Angeles; the expansion of its suburbs; the region’s diversified economy; and a selected grouping of five topics to illustrate dramatic transformations including education, leisure, religion and spirituality, tourism and transportation.

For each decade from the 1870s through the 1920s, photographs were shown that starkly represented the growth of Los Angeles from a small city of about 7,000 persons in 1870 to one that was about a million sixty years later.  Similarly, views from the San Gabriel Valley, Orange County, the San Fernando Valley and the South Bay showed suburban growth as well as development moved gradually from the city to outlying areas.

General View Of South Alhambra Calif 2008.210.1.1
A panoramic view of a part of Alhambra in the 1920s.  The house in the foreground stands out as a new addition to a tract.

Some of these photos showed agricultural areas, the emerging harbor at San Pedro and Wilmington; new parks; the Los Angeles Aqueduct; the first regional museum, the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art (now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County); panoramic views of suburban areas in the San Gabriel Valley; and some images tied to the Workman and Temple families (the Temple Block in Los Angeles, the Montebello oil field, and family members with a car parked at the Homestead.)

More detailed examinations of agriculture, real estate, oil, film and industry included views of walnut groves, citrus orchards and vineyards with laborers (Latino and Chinese, mainly); construction, new housing developments, and the movement of suburbia into the San Gabriel Valley; oil fields at Santa Clarita, Montebello, Orange County and Signal Hill; and film shoots and studios, along with an image of Princess Mona Darkfeather (Josephine M. Workman); and scenes of industrial development in downtown Los Angeles and the Vernon/Commerce area.

The Carthay Circle Theatre At Night 2011.139.1.3
The opulent Carthay Circle Theatre at night, probably from the late 1920s.

Slides detailing changes in education showed four different types of campuses, including the first Los Angeles high school, built in 1873; the state Normal School branch for teacher training, erected in the 1880s where the Los Angeles Central Public Library now sits; an early photo of Occidental College; and a view of Breed Street Elementary School in Boyle Heights.

A quartet of photos relating to leisure included a night-time image of the ornate Carthay Circle Theatre in West Los Angeles, now long gone; a float in a Los Angeles parade, of which there were many in those days; a group of four men and four women at a local beach; and the cyanotype of campers at Strain’s Camp in the San Gabriel Mountains.

Temple Oil Lease Montebello Looking Southwest 1920s
A snapshot from the early 1920s of the Temple oil lease at Montebello taken from San Gabriel Boulevard near the Rio Hondo bridge and looking west.

Images connected to religion and spirituality included views of “mainstream” churches like the Plaza Church and a Methodist church on Fort Street (renamed Broadway in the 1880s), as well as “alternatives” like a Hindu ashram in La Crescenta, the Foursquare Gospel Church of Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, and an image of the mystic Brother Isaiah Cudney, the purported “Miracle Man” charged but acquitted of manslaughter in the early 1920s when a follower died after an attempt at healing.

With respect to tourism, views included the Pico House hotel in Los Angeles, ex-governor Pío Pico’s attempt to keep the old Plaza viable as the city underwent its first period of growth in the late 1860s and early 1870s; the Hotel Redondo, one of several fine coastal hostelries; a panoramic view of Avalon on Santa Catalina Island; a view of the Rose Parade float of the Town of Temple, founded by Walter P. Temple, and later renamed Temple City; and Gay’s Lion Farm, a popular attraction at El Monte for many years.

S V 3050 Fort St M E Church Los Angeles 2007.42.1.2
An 1880s stereoscopic photograph of the Methodist Episcopal Church on Fort Street (Brodway.)

Transportation was represented by images of a horse-and-buggy (a delivery driver in Huntington Park); a streetcar in Los Angeles; a family out for a Sunday drive in a Los Angeles park about 1907; two young woman astride an Indian motorcycle in 1919; and an airplane competing in the famed air race held at the Dominguez Ranch in modern Compton in 1910.

The presentation ended with a reflection that it is generally harder to come by photos of working class and economically depressed areas and of people of color, including laborers.  Prior to the introduction of the personal camera by Kodak around 1890, photography had to be done by professionals and could be expensive.  Even when people could get their own cameras, they were expensive for a period, though mass production made their more affordable and commonplace.  Shorter work days and weeks, the rise of a massive middle class, and generally improved prosperity meant a transformation in how people utilized photography by the first decades of the 20th century, too.

RPPC Of Latino Family With Car In Front Of House 2013.574.1.1
The most common types of snapshots can often be images of people with their prized possessions, including houses and cars.  Here is a Latino family posed next to their jalopy in the 1920s.

The talk was really a very broad overview of changes in regional life over six decades and shared just a tiny sample of the Homestead’s photo collection.  Future presentations can not only highlight more images from the museum’s holdings, but look at other types of artifacts, including newspapers, maps, pamphlets, letters, financial documents, theater programs and many other examples that also reflect the dramatic changes that took place in greater Los Angeles and with the Workman and Temple families during our interpretive period.

We closed out the “Through the Viewfinder” series with a well-attended presentation that seemed to pique and hold the interest of those attending.   Next weekend will be “The End of the Great War,” an event commemorating the centennial of the armistice on 11 November 1918 that ended World War I, so we hope to see you there.



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