Wo/men at Work: Oil Industry Office Workers in Los Angeles, 1924 and 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

On this Labor Day weekend, we continue highlighting artifacts from the museum’s holdings relating to business and labor with today’s offering and its spotlight on a pair of snapshots relating to workers in the oil industry.

It was over 150 years ago that the drilling for petroleum was inaugurated by the Los Angeles Pioneer Oil Company at Pico Canyon in modern Santa Clarita.  That project in 1865 created what was long known as the San Fernando oil field, where F.P.F. Temple became an enthusiastic participant during the height of greater Los Angeles’ first significant and sustained period of growth, starting in the late 1860s and extending through the mid-1870s.

Temple appeared to be on the cusp of making a breakthrough at his drilling site not far from Pico Canyon when the state economy floundered and his Temple and Workman bank, after a last-ditch loan from Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, collapsed early in 1876.  Later that year, Star Oil Company hit a gusher in the San Fernando field.

About fifteen years later, Edward Doheny and Charles Canfield, with little capital and crude equipment, struck oil west of downtown Los Angeles that opened up a new era for oil prospecting.   Doheny made another significant strike at Olinda in northeast Orange County in 1897, bringing about the beginning of Orange County’s oil industry.

Some of the equipment in the last wells in that field are now being pulled out as housing is pursued, a process that has been gradually removing the traces of an industry that has long been a part of our region’s economic juggernaut.  This seems all the more reason to preserve what we can of the oil industry’s history in greater Los Angeles, such as with these two modest photos.

Shell Oil Warehouse Pipe Fittings Group Photo Los Angeles 2014.6
This 1924 photo from the Homestead’s collection shows a group of nine male workers, presumably all from the office behind them, at a Shell Oil Company of California pipe-fitting warehouse in the Los Angeles area.

The images, though, also speak to other topics (including fashion and hairstyles for one of them), not the least of which is the role of gender in labor.  Among the Homestead’s oil industry photos and this is almost certainly true in other collections, the vast majority of them show men working in the field.  This was a tough profession, with long hours, sometimes dangerous conditions, mediocre pay, and gritty environments with clangorous noises and pungent odors, among other aspects.

The first photo, dating from 1924, was taken at a Shell Oil Company of California (note the logo at the far right) warehouse, somewhere in the region, specifically dealing pipe fitting, a crucial job in the fields.  These gents, however, are not the roughnecks and roustabouts who did the demanding physical labor related to pipe fitting.  On the reverse is an inscription, “Shell Oil Warehouse / Pipe Fitting Group Photo / Los Angeles, 1924.”

Instead, this group of nine are likely office workers, judging merely by their neat haircuts and their clothing, which consists of neckties and bowties, buttoned-down shirts, cardigan sweaters, and suit jackets—standard office attire.  If so, these men worked in the confines of the clapboard building behind them, a structure that even sported some striped awnings to give it a little more ornamentation, not to mention shade for those working by the windows.  One guy at the far left even holds a ledger or binder as if to show the type of labor he did.

Meanwhile on the raised platform at the left are nearly stacked parts for connecting pipes, while off to the right are two encased larger parts next to the Shell logo.  In the distance behind chicken wire fencing are several parked cars.

The second image is from 1928 and shows eleven young woman, all looking to be in their twenties or so, standing outside an office building.  This structure has neat stuccoed walls, large sashed windows with wooden shutters, and a gutter drain, so, it is possible it is a branch location and definitely not the eleven-story Union Oil Building, which still stands at 7th and Hope streets in downtown Los Angeles.

1018050 Female Employees Union Oil Company Los Angeles 2015.181.
Eleven young female employees of Union Oil Company of California stand in front of an office building in this 1928 image and they are labeled as the “feminine part of our force.”

These young women are in the peak of modern style with their short hair cuts and variations of the marcel wave that was all the rage in late Twenties.  Many wear the loose-fitting knee-length dresses that were also very popular, while others wear blouses and skirts and a couple sport sweaters over their blouses.

There are two sartorial outliers, though.  The woman at the far right has tan shoes, while all the others wear the more typical black shoes, though in a range of styles.  The woman who is fourth from left, moreover, wears a sharp striped tie under her three-buttoned jacket and, to top it off, has a large corsage on her left lapel.

Presumably, the photographer was another female employee and, on the reverse, is an inscription noting that the group comprised the “feminine part of our force.”  This appears to mean that these were all or at least most of the women workers in the office, wherever it happened to be in the greater Los Angeles region.

So, while both images show oil industry office workers in the area, there is a distinction between the two.  The all-male staff working in the clapboard building for a pipe-fitting warehouse for Shell Oil Company are in the field where women would not likely be, as the eleven ladies posed in front of the much-nicer Union Oil Company office appear not to be in the field.

Still, it is hard to image that twenty or thirty years earlier there would have been nearly as many women working for an oil company in virtually any capacity.  The growth of women in the labor force generally was significant in the first decades of the Twentieth Century, even if it is probable that at least some of those in the second photo may have been working only until they married and had families.

Tomorrow, we conclude our Labor Day series with a very interesting image of a state labor organization at a Los Angeles conference in the early 1900s, so check back for that.


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