Nature’s Workshop: The Manufacturing and Foreign Trade Directory of Los Angeles County and District, 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This Labor Day weekend is an obvious time to shine a light on some Los Angeles business and labor history and the intention was to start last night with a post on the August 1929 issue of Southern California Business.  An article in that publication on the project to remake Olvera Street into a historic site and tourist attraction proved so interesting that the post focused solely on that.

So, tonight we move to a business-oriented artifact from the Homestead’s collection, the 1928 edition of the Manufacturing and Foreign Trade Directory of Los Angeles County and District, issued by the Industrial and Foreign Trade departments of the massively influential Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.

While the bulk of the publication is as advertised, forming a directory of manufacturers, trade names, non-manufacturing industries, commodity indices of products, and a foreign trade directory for exports and imports, banks, forwarding merchants, brokers, warehouses and more, there is some introductory material that provides useful information for discerning how advanced the region’s business and industrial sectors were just before the Great Depression.

As the Chamber liked to put it, greater Los Angeles was “nature’s workshop” and the goal with this thirteenth edition of the directory was to sell that point wherever and whenever possible. Another catchphrase pushed by the Chamber was that Los Angeles was the “Market Place of the West” and it offered that “in no other center of the West is it possible to find so diverse a list of manufactured commodities” and nowhere else in that part of the nation were there “so many and such well equipped industrial organizations.”


A near-perfect climate with abundant sunshine and little rain, ample space for expansion and growth, a burgeoning population and labor force, water brought in from eastern California, and a sophisticated transportation system were among the crucial qualities for business and industrial development and growth in greater Los Angeles.

Also pointed out was that there was a significant interaction between Los Angeles and other western cities and states, so that, it was observed, “Los Angeles is the largest market for Idaho potatoes, Utah pig iron and Arizona livestock and grapefruit.”  In turn, the City of Angels sold goods to those places, whether this was steel, women’s wear or tires that provided important reciprocation between these areas.

Statistical information provided included the estimate that the city had some 1.36 million residents, with county at over 2.3 million.  Exports from the area in 1927 totaled about $111 million, while imports were not far over a third of that. Over 37,000 building permits were issued that year for over $123 million in improvements.

The value of manufactured output was pegged at $1.1 billion, while agricultural products topped $67.5 million and livestock at just above $26 million.  The city’s banks had resources of $1.262 billion, with deposits of just under that and clearings of over $9 billion.  The assessed valuation of city property was just under $2 billion, while the county sported some $3.4 billion in values.


Incidental items of interest include the fact that there were 668 churches, 189 theatres, 377 public schools, 150 private schools and colleges, 67 public parks, above 4,000 hotels, apartments and rooming houses, 114 motion picture companies and 31 studios (with 84% of all films in America coming from what was generally known as “Hollywood.”)  Of course, it had to be added that there were 12,000 members of the Chamber, making it the largest on the planet.

A list of marketing and manufacturing advantages included the fact that there were:

  • abundant supplies of water
  • cheap oil and natural gas
  • low industrial power rates
  • low building and maintenance costs “due to mild climate”
  • excellent transportation systems and facilities
  • large supplies at low cost of local raw materials
  • the fastest growing population on the west coast
  • cheaper freight costs to Pacific Coast and Western markets
  • and, very importantly, “open-shop industrial labor . . . accepted both by workers and employers for their mutual benefit,” which also meant virtually no labor strikes or lock-outs.

With respect to resources, natural gas was highlighted as only available in the southern part of the state because of the enormous development of petroleum.  Natural gas rates were slightly cheaper in Midwest cities like Detroit, St. Louis and Denver, but higher in other surveyed cities.

Because “Southern California holds a leading position in power development for both hydro and steam power,” electricity “costs less than over any similar area elsewhere.”  The two utilities in Los Angeles, the municipal Bureau of Power and Light and the Los Angeles Gas and Electric Corporation, a public enterprise, and Southern California Edison for outside the city generated over 1 million horsepower.  Rates were substantially less in the region than in San Francisco, Fall River, Massachusetts, Newark and Columbia, South Carolina.


The marvel of the essentially man-made Los Angeles Harbor was mentioned, as well.  It was noted that ships had to anchor a mile offshore prior to the first federal appropriation in 1871 for deepening a single channel (and building a breakwater, which was not mentioned).  A quarter century later, larger improvements were made, though there was no reference to the “Free Harbor Fight” that led to the federal preference for San Pedro/Wilmington over the Southern Pacific railroad’s chosen site at Santa Monica.

Also noted was the annexation of San Pedro and Wilmington into the City of Los Angeles in 1909 and the investment of $25 million in the last sixteen years for harbor improvements, including terminals with wharves, warehouses, rail lines an roads, and more.  Federal expenditures of some $10 million were added since the original 1871 appropriation.

The result was that the Port of Los Angeles was then second only to that of New York in terms of international commerce handled, while it was first of all American harbors in “intercoastal commerce” and second in tonnage of exports.  More petroleum was shipped out of the port than anywhere else in the world, with 117 million of the total of 165 million barrels produced sent out through the port.  Recent endeavors to add high density cotton presses made the port the leader in exports of that material in the southwestern U.S.

Modern terminals, quick dispatch and turn-around for ships, a massive increase in steamship service from more than 165 companies, rapid growth in shipments to and from Los Angeles to Asian ports, and the improvement of the port to keep up with the growth of Los Angeles from about 300,000 in 1909 to over 1.3 million some two decades later were also highlighted.


In the Foreign Trade section, it was observed that this was still a relatively new and growing area for greater Los Angeles, with most of the focus on domestic markets previously.  Yet, in 1915, there were 87,000 tons of goods sent out to foreign markets valued at just $750,000, but at the end of fiscal year 1927-28 those figures skyrocketed to just about 6.7 million tons with a value of over $111 million.  Imports from foreign countries stood at just above 27,000 tons and a value of $3.4 million in 1915, but grew to 600,000 tons and more than $40 million by the end of June 1928.

It was asserted that “the great Pacific, which is rapidly becoming the chief commercial arena of the world . . . with untold undeveloped resources awaiting only the initiative and energy of man to bring them into use,” Los Angeles was particularly well-suited to capitalize on the potential because the city “is destined to play a considerable part in the development of world trade in the future.”

A chart showed the breakdown of the $111 million of goods shipped from Los Angeles to four dozen foreign lands.  Just under a fifth of that went to England, though the tonnage was behind Japan, Panama, Chile and Argentina.  This was because the British imported such valuable commodities as gasoline, cotton, and food.  Japan and China were second and third in terms of goods with values of about $17 million and $10 million, respectively.  England’s share of exports, though, declined, while those of Japan and China increased in recent years.  Nations receiving more than $5 million in goods included Germany, Panama, Argentina, Canada and Australia.  Notably, the whole of Africa received just 292 tons of goods valued at just north of $58,000.

The main items of export included petroleum, raw cotton, citrus, sardines, oil well equipment, borax, honey, and canned fruit were mentioned, though there was much else listed in detailed accounts of what was shipped to which country.  Other examples included coffee, wallboard, automobiles, wearing apparel, asbestos, chemicals, airplanes and parts, tile, stationery, paints and varnishes, art works, leather goods, farm implements, candy, lumber, glass bottles and many more items.

At the back of the directory was a partial list of firms who shipped to Hawaii, a list of overseas steamship companies, a list of foreign trade banks in Los Angeles, major local banks and a chart showing the “Growth of Foreign Trade” from 1915 to 1928 with major leaps in tonnage and value in 1917, 1923, and 1927, while imports rose dramatically in 1921, 1923, and, somewhat less so, in the last two years.


Documents like this directory can be very useful and helpful in understand the dramatic transformation of greater Los Angeles as a business and manufacturing hub of the American Southwest and a metropolis ranking with those of the older established cities of the U.S.  Mention of the “open shop,” with unions having little strength outside of a few industries, is worth remembering as we proceed with other posts this weekend in honor of Labor Day.

Leave a Reply