by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce was an extraordinarily powerful promotional force in the region during the first decades of the 20th century, employing a large staff utilizing substantial resources through many programs to market the products of agriculture, industry, finance, real estate and other elements of business.
One of its many tools for publicity and a mode of communication with its members was the magazine Southern California Business, which was launched in the early 1920s as the region, along with the nation, was entering a boom period that would last most of the decade.
Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is the January 1926 issue of the publication and we’ll focus on several articles and advertisements that hone in on a particular point of emphasis: promoting prosperity in greater Los Angeles.
The first major article in the publication is “Facing a New Year With Confidence,” which has lengthy statements by powerful business figures like banker Henry M. Robinson, department store owner David May, Henry McKee of Barker Brothers, and others. Robinson, for example, declared that, excepting two other unstated years, “1925 in Los Angeles and vicinity was the best year in the history of the community,” judged by massive increases in manufacturing, high levels of oil production, and others.
May exclaimed, “as we slam shut the big book 1925, it’s with a sense of satisfaction that it has been a good year—a mighty good year!” and a forecast of a better 1926. From the vantage point of The May Company, he observed that, in traveling to stores in the chain across the country, “there you get the pulse of the public.” To him, “the store is a barometer of general conditions” through consumer confidence. Increased sales from the Midwest meant “a tidal wave of prosperity that is bound westward” so that “Los Angeles is on the eve of tremendous prosperity,” even if, as Robinson noted, real estate was sluggish.
Another article “Twelve Months of Prosperity” elaborated on the prior year’s successes. Penned by John E. Barber, vice-president to Robinson at the First National Bank of Los Angeles, the piece noted that, while real estate problems in Florida led some to question the sustainability of growth in Los Angeles, “the facts show indisputably that the situation here has not been sounder in 15 years.”
The volume of business growth was better in 1925 than two years, a peak year for the region, while 1922 was considered “a record year up to that time in all lines in business” was the phenomenal growth in the oil industry a key component, along with real estate and building activity that led to 1923’s apex. Barber cited gas meter, water and telephone connections to show how population growth directly translated to business increase.
Telegraph revenue, bank clearings and deposits, postal receipts, commerce through Los Angeles Harbor, and other areas were discussed as positive signs, even as charts showed a significant decline in building permits, subdivision maps and contracts, and the value of property transferred. Agriculture had a banner year in many areas with healthy increases in the yields of most products, such as walnuts, olives and olive oil, and others, while orange and lemon production did decline, though higher prices offset some of the losses and profitability was up 15% over 1924.
Oil production slowed by only 1% (though nearly a quarter lower than 1923) and the fact that the industry brought $12 million a month to the region was significant. In turning to money expended by the city and county of Los Angeles, Barber provided figures showing enormous increases of 38% in 1925 compared to 1924 and 74% compared to 1923. This involved real estate, buildings and equipment, as well as capital outlays for power, water and harbor improvements totaling $20 million, another $18 million for schools, and the new Hall of Justice, which cost $3 million.
In all, though there were the declines in real estate and building, some very steep, there was growth in many other areas that, to Barber, showed plenty of examples of how 1925 was a year of real regional prosperity.
John O’Leary, president of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, chimed in with his “How Business Reflects Optimism.” He stated that reports from around the nation and his own observations showed clearly that “business conditions the country over . . . reflect the greatest optimism.” Agriculture, which experienced some down years in the U.S., was such that “conditions are reaching a more satisfactory stage.” There was more balanced production, prices and income were improving, credit was more easily obtainable, and cooperative marketing was on the rise.
Loadings of railroad cars for shipment of goods “are breaking all records” in recent weeks and months and “building construction has reached new peaks,” totaling over $5 billion in the preceding ten months. Steel mills were operating nearly at capacity, exports were up 15% and, notably, “our reservoir of investments and savings forms a reserve of astonishing proportions when we consider the vast sums we spend for pleasures and luxuries.”
This in mind, O’Leary concluded,
We cannot but marvel at the wealth of the country. And we should congratulate ourselves that the pioneer spirit of our people, which has made this great Western country possible and which has inspired men to hazard new enterprises and to found new wealth-creating industries still exists in the sons of those who first pushed westward.
Other articles discussed the silver anniversary of the Automobile Club of Southern California; developments in the San Fernando Valley; “Why Movies Wil Stay in Hollywood” (namely “equipment, brains, climate, and habit”); the National Orange Show held each year in San Bernardino; the balance of agricultural crops; a feature on the inland Riverside County city of Corona; and more.
A “Review of Business for 1925” reiterated that “the close of the year finds Los Angeles business in an exceedingly sound and prosperous condition.” Whatever sluggishness existed in 1924 and into the early part of 1925 “has disappeared and at present a general tone of optimist is evident.” Looking at bank clearings, building permits, general commerce, oil production, realty transfers, postal receipts, retail trade, population, and industrial production, the review outlined the reasons why prosperity was expected to continue. This was shown in a “March of Events in Figures” with tables of many areas showing changes in recent years.
A selection of advertisements from the Credit Finance Corporation, Hellman Commercial Trust and Savings Bank, Goodyear, the City of Los Angeles’ Department of Water and Power, and others repeat the mantras of prosperity, optimist, and dynamic business growth that were part and parcel of the Chamber of Commerce’s pervasive and persistent program of promotion.
Within just a few years, however, the boosterism came up against another powerful force, the Great Depression. For all of the growth in real estate, oil, agriculture and industrial production, John O’Leary’s statement about the “reservoir of investments and savings” was checked by the impossible conditions of stock market investment schemes and manipulations that rendered the situation of millions of Americans in a dire state few could have imagined in early 1926.
Part of our interpretation at the Homestead is to put a human face on that experience through the story of Walter P. Temple and his family. He took advantage of the booming oil industry to move into an equally rapidly raising real estate market through building and development. His fall, by the early 1930s mirrors in many ways that of greater Los Angeles and the nation very broadly and objects like this magazine are tools for telling that story.