Getting Schooled with the Star and Crescent Literary Society, Los Angeles High School, 29 April 1898

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Among the many transformations in greater Los Angeles during the Victorian era, which basically lasted from around 1840 to about 1900, was the dramatic growth in education among its citizens.  Taking just the Workman and Temple families as an example, Antonia Margarita Workman, who was of school age from the mid-1830s to about the late 1840s (though she married at fifteen and had her first child at sixteen) was unable to read or write, yet her eight surviving children, including her two daughters, all had educations of at least high school level and almost all had some college education.

Notably, her oldest children started off attending a private school opened by her father, William Workman, at the Workman House sometime in the 1850s.  Later, the Temple children attended Catholic private schools, including St. Vincent’s College, which actually served male students from grammar school age and up and was the forerunner of today’s Loyola Marymount University; the Sisters of Charity’s school for girls; Santa Clara College, now University, in the city of that name by San Jose; and Holy Names College in Oakland.

Los Angeles Times, 23 April 1882.

A few of the male Temples even attended institutions of higher learning outside California.  In the first half of the 1870s, F.P.F. Temple took his sons Francis, William and John to Massachusetts, his home state, and enrolled them at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Law School and a high school and business college, respectively.  William, training to be a lawyer, even spent a little more than a year in London, studying at the Inns of Court.  The failure of the Temple and Workman bank in 1876, however, cut short his study and that of John and both returned to Los Angeles.

Even still, the younger four of the brood, daughters Lucinda and Margarita and sons Walter and Charles did have at least some higher education in the roughly fifteen years following the financial disaster, as the paramount importance of education continued to be instilled despite the straitened economic circumstances of the Temple family.

Los Angeles Herald, 22 February 1884.

Meanwhile, public education in Los Angeles dates to the opening of the first grammar school in 1854.  The Homestead happens to have in its collection an early ledger book documenting expenses for the city’s nascent school system during those years.  It was nearly two decades, however, before the first high school opened in the city.

Los Angeles High School welcomed its first students in 1873 at a campus built on Poundcake Hill directly west of the Plaza where the southeast corner of Broadway and Temple Street is now.  Its first graduating class, consisting of seven students, matriculated two years later.  During the Boom of the 1880s when a new county courthouse was in the works, the school was moved to a nearby location where US 101 runs through downtown now.

Herald, 5 November 1891.

In 1891, a new high school building was constructed on Hill Street on Fort Moore Hill, while the older structure continued to be used for lower grades until the mid-1930s.  The new site was partly an old cemetery and it remained the only high school in the city until 1905.  A dozen years later, in 1917, Los Angeles High moved to its current site on Olympic Boulevard (then 9th Street).  Although, at one time, over 10,000 students attended the school, today’s population is about a fifth of that.

Tonight’s post features a notable artifact from the Homestead’s collection relating to the school: a program for an event held on this day in 1898 by the Star and Crescent Literary Society.  When it was created in 1876 by Superintendent L.D. Smith (other sources say the club began in 1879), apparently with an emphasis on natural history, it was the very first student club on campus.

Times, 21 March 1896.

Later, the Society morphed into an organization that focused on essays, orations, musical performances and other “literary” endeavors and it appears to have been active until at least the mid-1930s, though significantly reduced in numbers and activities by then.

An early reference, coming about three years after its creation, was to a program held on 21 April 1882 as a memorial to poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (whose likeness is on a door in the library of La Casa Nueva at the Homestead along with Cervantes, Shakespeare and Milton).  Recitations of poems, the performance of songs, the reading of essays and other components, all derived from the work of Longfellow, were part of the event.

Star Crescent Society Cover_20190429_0001
This and the remaining three images comprise the program for the 29 April 1898 program of the Los Angeles High School Star and Crescent Literary Society focusing on the newly prosecuted war of the United States against Spain over Cuba and the recent sinking of the U.S.S. Maine, blamed on Spain, but likely because of an accident within the ship.

Four years later, in June 1886, the Society held its end of the school year program, held for at least the preceding two years at the newly built Normal School for educating teachers, situated where the Central Public Library is today and which was the precursor of U.C.L.A.  There was no overarching theme, but there were orations, recitations, costumed readings, instrumental musical performances and singing and a debate on the question of whether the 19th Century “has done more to advance mankind that the preceding centuries.”

In 1891, the Los Angeles Board of Education adopted a rule concerning the organization:

All pupils in the high school are active members of the Star and Crescent Literary society . . . [and] shall be subject to such rules and regulations as may be proscribed by the school faculty and the superintendent of city schools.  Every regular graduate who has commendably fulfilled his society duties is publicly presented with a gold star and crescent pin, which admits him to the alumni association.

Although nothing appeared in the Los Angeles Times or Los Angeles Herald newspapers concerning the 29 April 1898 exercises held according to this program, the regular meeting of the Society from 18 March was covered in the next day’s Herald.  Vocal and instrumental solos and performances; a brief statement by the school’s principal; the installation of newly elected officers; “an account of Spanish life” by one of the faculty; and the showing of “stereopticon scenes” were on offer.

Among some of the students mentioned in a handful of Society programs covered in the press from 1882 to 1901 were Arthur C. Harper (mayor of Los Angeles early in the 20th century and who resigned due to scandal during his first term); Marian Otis, daughter of Los Angeles Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis and wife of her father’s right-hand man, Harry Chandler; and Marco Hellman, later a prominent banker and businessman.

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As for the program highlighted here, it had a very definite theme dealing with the onset of the Spanish-American War, specifically the dubious rationale for America’s conflict with Spain after the explosion and sinking of the U.S.S. Maine at Havana on 15 February 1898.  The Spanish were blamed for destroying the ship with a mine and war was declared by the United States on 25 April, just four days before the Society event.

The cover has a large American flag in full color, along with the organization’s name, the date of the event, and the rallying cry of “Remember the Maine.”  The first part of the program included the routine business of a call to order, reading of minutes from the previous meeting, and a “critic’s report,” whatever that entailed.

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A piano duet of composer Franz von Suppe’s “Light Cavalry” overture brought the martial theme to a musical introduction, followed by something that was a fad of the era.  This was a “whistling solo” of the popular tune “The Dance of Brownies” by “Little Hazel Bryson, whose father John followed William H. Workman as mayor of Los Angeles for the one-year term of 1888-89.  Whistling was so popular that Josephine M. Workman, granddaughter of Homestead owners William and Nicolasa Workman, was listed in the 1900 federal census as a “whistler” and likely performed in theaters and other venues in the city.

Will Chapin of the Times gave an address on “The Modern Art of Illustration,” followed by two male students who performed military bugle calls.  This preceded a tableaux on “The Story of Cuba,” which had five parts: “Cuba Oppressed;” “Cuba’s Appeal to Justice;” “Cuba in Revolt;” “Uncle Sam’s Interference;” and “Cuba Libre.”  Obviously, marked patriotism, if not “jingoism”, was the order of the day here and it is notable that a Society program from two years prior included an oration on “American Patriotism” by Superior Court Judge William A. Cheney, who noted:

Uncle Sam has the chip of liberty on his shoulder and dares the world to knock it off . . . we want Cuba free because we love liberty.  Our flag is the flag of peace which can be obtained by arbitration, treaty, tame submission to insult, or by being ready for war and saying “Don’t tread on me.”  Patriotism is not a mere sentiment, but a real thing we all feel.  Be true to your flag, your country, and the principles of your country.

After the Cuba tableaux a double quartet of vocalists was accompanied by a pianist, ending the event.  On the back cover of the program are lists of Society officers, the executive committee, the double quartet of singers and the characters from the tableaux, including Uncle Sam, John Bull [England], Spain, Justice, and Cuba.

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This Star and Crescent Literary Club program is a fascinating document about the development of public education in late Victorian Los Angeles and the heightened patriotic atmosphere in America in the months after the sinking of the Maine, which appeared to have been an accident in the coal bunker, not an attack by the Spanish (not unlike the pretext used to launch the Mexican-American War a half century earlier to foment a war of aggression and imperialism.)


2 thoughts

  1. Great article! My great-grandfather, Floyd Gossett Dessery (French immigrant family) was in the class of ‘98 at LA High. A few months after this program was given, he had graduated, enlisted in the Army artillery and was on his way to Manila to fight the Spanish by the 4th of July. Based on his journals, he was full of jingoistic fever when he sailed out, but after a year in the jungles fighting insurgents, his homeward journals have a different flair. He went on to become a renowned LA water engineer, and water engineer in charge of the LA Harbor development. Thanks!

  2. Hi Steve, we’re glad you found the post and thanks for sharing the information about your great-grandfather. It sounds like he lived quite a life!

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