Read All About It in “Sunset: The Pacific Monthly,” May 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Sunset is a magazine with a 120-year history, though, not surprisingly, it has changed its focus and emphasis in content, if not geography, over the years.  Launched in 1898 by the Southern Pacific railroad’s passenger department, the publication was an arm of the company’s efforts to boost tourism to the western United States.

The magazine was then sold and became the independent Sunset Magazine, Inc., with headquarters in San Francisco.  During the 1920s, the last decade of the Homestead’s interpretive era, the content broadened to include short stories, poems, current affairs, regular features (the “Pulse of the West,” “Interesting Westerners,” “Western Homes and Gardens,” and the “Western Housekeeper” were the mainstays) and more.  In recent years, the focus has shifted to “lifestyle” topics like gardening, home decoration, cooking and travel, while the geographic emphasis on the West continues.


Today’s highlighted object from the Museum’s holdings is the May 1928 issue of Sunset, with the subtitle of “The Pacific Monthly.”  One of the main features is “What About Evolution?” comprising a debate between the Rev. John Roach Stratton of Calvary Baptist Church in New York and Maynard Shipley, president of the Science League of America, who were making the rounds in public debate as well as contributing written rebuttals to each other.  Coming a few years after the famed “Scopes Monkey Trial” which dealt with the teaching of evolution instead of creation in schools, the Stratton-Shipley debate is an interesting one to read, especially because the issues involved still resonate over ninety years later in the gap between faith and science.

Another article of note is “This Gold Rush Business” which, as the 90th anniversary of the famed rush of 1849 in California approached, looked at an 1853 essay by Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859) which lambasted the quest for the precious metal and the denigrating and ruinous influences such rushes had on civilized society.  De Quincy, best known for his 1822 book Confessions of an English Opium-Eater detailing his addiction to the drug and which offered a mix of warning about opium and discussions of its pleasures and was served up in a style that was widely regarded at the time.


“Testing for the ‘Crime Germ'” is another remarkable piece concerning research by Stanford psychology professor, Lewis M. Terman, regarding tests that purportedly would help detect the likelihood of young children to display a “tendency to crime.”  In the last half of the 19th and into the 20th centuries, criminology studies were replete with scientific endeavors to find characteristics and traits, physiological and psychological, assigned to “criminal types.”  Terman’s goal was “to eliminate the delinquent child” by finding ways to “discover him as a pre-delinquent child.”

Terman was also one of the developers of the IQ test, which has received increasingly intensive scrutiny in recent years, and, in 1910, conducted a study on a precocious young musician from a poverty-stricken and Bohemian background, whose IQ score did not seem to match his remarkable vocabulary and other intellectual attributes despite his highly unorthodox upbringing and very intermittent public schooling.  The subject, Henry Cowell, went on to be a controversial but innovative composer of avant-garde classical music.


A fourth feature of note was a tribute to “The Man Who Saved San Francisco,” General Frederick Funston, who had a wide-ranging career in the newspaper business, was a composer, botanist, explorer, and military man.  When the devastating earthquake and fire struck San Francisco in April,1906, Funston leapt into action to work on coordinating response from civic and military officials, with the order to have troops from the U.S. Army’s base at the Presidio considered essential to maintaining order and limiting the destruction.  A bust of Funston at the City Hall was one of the main tributes to him and his widow sent a note to the author, George Dudley Bogart, expressing her pleasure at the tribute paid to Funston.

The “Speaking of Books” section, by the magazine’s editor Joseph Henry Jackson, who later went on to notoriety as editor of the literary section of the San Francisco Chronicle and for his “Reader’s Guide” syndicated radio program, featured a book to appeal to those interested in western American history.  This was Frémont: The West’s Greatest Adventurer, a two-volume work by Allan Nevins, who was a writer and editor with the New York World and New York Sun newspapers.


Later in 1928 Nevins became a professor of history at Columbia University and remained on the faculty until mandatory retirement thirty years later.  He wrote more than fifty books, including biographies of Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, and Grover Cleveland, with the latter winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1933, and his eight-volume masterwork on the Civil War was a quarter century in the making from the late 1940s through the early 1970s.

Jackson’s review praised Nevins’ work as “an example of biography at its best” and “at once readable and scholarly, popular in tone and authentic at the same time.  Moreover, the author “weighs and estimates fairly; he renders disinterested judgment.”  In the two volumes, “Frémont the man is put before the reader with all of his weaknesses,” these including “snap judgments, (not of men; he knew men, but of situations), his invariable preference for action rather than thought, his unwillingness to change a course of action once determined, his inherent inability to conform to the opinions of those who were his superiors.”


Of the latter was pointed out “the unfortunate brush with Kearny which resulted in his court-martial.”  One of the nine reasons cited in that military action was that Frémont, without proper authority, acquired Alcatraz Island from and promised government payment of $5,000 to F.P.F. Temple, who received the island from William Workman, granted by Governor Pío Pico in spring 1846 just prior to the American invasion of Mexican California.

What Frémont excelled in, simply put, was that “his business was exploring.  He was no business man, no politician, no soldier for the matter of that.”  If he had been left to that singular purpose, the legacy he left would have been quite different and Jackson restated that “the Pathfinder” had a “root-weakness . . . not knowing his limitations.”  One wonders how the biography would have been written if Frémont, the first candidate of the newly minted Republican Party, won the presidential election of 1856 and whether the Civil War would have started very shortly thereafter.


In the “Pulse of the West” section, there is a brief mention of Los Angeles in a discussion of taxation.  The question was “why does a thousand dollars’ worth of real estate . . . pay more in special assessments than property in any other large American city?”  This was stated with respect to the fact that “it is easily understood why Los Angeles, having to provide all kinds of improvements for large numbers of new residents every year, should be the second highest” in the nation at $7.20 per $1000 valuation and a per capita amount of $15.75.  St. Paul, however, was higher at $8.22 and $20.16, respectively.

Notably, the piece observed that Baltimore and San Francisco were at the bottom of the list with just 33 cents per $1000 and it was suggested “that Los Angeles and Seattle [fourth on the list] send delegations of property owners to San Francisco to study ways and means of reducing assessments.”


There was also reference to a call in San Bernardino to have a special assessment rather than a bond issue to pay for a main sewer project and Sunset wondered why officials in that city would “collect so colossal a tax rate unless the assessment is far too low?”  It ended by observing that taxpayers, “the chaps that always get it in the neck,” should ask officials about high tax rates and see “how much effective pruning could be done without hurting essential services.”

Another element of the section concerned whether to seek a modification of Prohibition, a position the magazine took in the face of the fact that “obedience to the Volstead Act is about as easy to obtain as enforcement of a law compelling all women to wear sunbonnets and ankle-length skirts in order to minimize sex attraction.”  It called upon religious groups, the Anti-Saloon League, and women’s clubs “to demonstrate the possibility” of more effective enforcement.


The publication expressed that it was “nauseated—and alarmed—by the huge increase in official corruption directly traceable to the effort to suppress a trade which scores of millions do not want suppressed.”  It concluded that “if the women, the churches and the Anti-Saloon League can turn the prohibition and peace officers into St. Anthonys able to resist temptation, enforcement will be easy. Can it be done?”

There was photograph and a caption noting that “Huntington Library Opened to Public.”  After its benefactor and creator, Henry E. Huntington, of real estate and railroad renown and one of the best-known book, manuscript and art collectors of his time, died in 1927, efforts to further open his large estate, library and, especially, his art-filled mansion to the public led to what was promoted in the magazine.


Also of note in this section was “Who is Responsible When a New Dam Breaks?” with this article concerning the horrendous tragedy of the St. Francis Dam disaster north of Los Angeles in modern Santa Clarita and which involved a huge floor of water, impounded for Los Angeles, but which roared down the Santa Clara River to Ventura and the ocean killing several hundred people.

It was pointed out that the dam held a small amount of water compared to others in the west, that it was not filled because of low rainfall, and that, consequently, that it should not have failed unless there was “an inherent weakness in the structure.”  The fault then lay with either the designers and builders or those who supervised and approved the plans and construction.


The magazine added that “if the abutment was weak, its character should have been known to the engineers” and corrections made, while “if faulty material caused the crumbling of the dam, criminal prosecutions will be in order.”  An investigation determined that the problem was in the geological condition of the locale and that those involved in its planning and execution could not have known, though this didn’t prevent William Mulholland, who had overall oversight, from taking responsibility and being judged by many as at fault.

The magazine concluded by calling for all dams to be carefully reviewed and for “automatic alarm systems that would at once arouse the residents of exposed regions in case of a dam failure.”  It averred that such a system “would enable these residents to sleep soundly.”


In the “Western Homes and Gardens” section are two examples, a “modified Swiss chalet” in Berkeley and the use of flagstones at the Los Angeles residence of Mrs. Frederick Kimball Stearns.  Three images of the latter include the placing of flagstones with grass in between on either side of a high wall with an arched cast-iron gate, as well as near some steps leading to French doors.

Finally, there is a brief portion of “Interesting Westerners” concerning Garland Anderson, a black playwright with a formal education of just four years and who worked as a bellhop and telephone operator, but whose “Appearances”, supported by Al Jolson (best known for his 1927 film, The Jazz Singer, which was the first picture to have sound and which featured its star performing in blackface) made its Broadway debut in 1925 and was very well-received by many.  Anderson, who died in 1939 and remained identified with “Appearances”, was quoted as saying “I see that the play is but an outward expression of an inner burning desire to serve humanity.  I had no technical training, but I did have faith that I could reach the public” with his creation.


This issue of Sunset is a window into life in Western America some ninety years ago during the late 1920s and is fascinating reading.  As always, it is also interesting to peruse the advertising, some samples of which are reproduced here.

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