Through the Viewfinder: An Album of “Sub-Postcards” from Greater Los Angeles and California, ca. 1906

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

We don’t see much of these nowadays with so many of us using our phones for the purpose, but the photo album is one of the more interesting artifacts found in the Homestead’s historic artifact collection.  Tonight’s highlighted object from the museum’s holdings is an album with thick boards and a spine and no lettering or captions of any kind, except for a pasted-down label on the inside back cover with instructions for how to fill the book and bearing a patent date of 22 March 1892.

While the book is not completely full, it does contain nearly a hundred postcards manufactured by the SUB-POST Card Company of Los Angeles, which issued these images on thin paper without dividers or stamp boxes, so that they were not intended to be used like typical postcards and mailed to recipients.

The short-lived chariot races at the Tournament of Roses in Pasadena.

Additionally, because these were reproduced using a letterpress, these are not real photo postcards, but, as one researcher who found great information on the company and its founder, Walter M. Reeves, stated it, they came out “surprisingly good, based on well-composed, contrasty images that transitioned nicely to fine-screen halftone prints.  A look at the selections in the album confirms that the image quality is excellent and they have the appearance of the RPPC.

Frank Sternad, who wrote about the firm and its owner in the newsletter of the San Francisco Bay Area Postcard Club five years ago, found that Reeves, a native of Auburn, east of Sacramento, was a china and glassware traveling salesman for a company on Spring Street near 2nd, when he opened, by 1906, the SUB-POST Card Company in a small space next door to his employer.

Spring Street north from about Fifth in downtown Los Angeles.

Sternad found that Reeves applied for a trademark for his “picture cards” and likely had the “SUB-POST mark as part of that process, doing this at the end of May 1906, just six weeks after he issued a series of cards showing the horrific destruction wrought by the great earthquake and fire at San Francisco just several weeks prior.

Later that year, Reeves moved into standard postcard production featuring halftone photos and then images of clay bas-reliefs tied into a photo used on a card.  This latter process led to Reeves referring to himself as a “Mission Artist,” apparently because he published images of the Mission San Gabriel, a featured stop, as we’ve seen in this blog, on tours along the Pacific Electric Railway trolley system.

“Broadway at Night,” or probably more like dusk, looking south from about Temple Street.

In 1907, Reeves moved just a couple of doors down and called his shop, “The Poster.”  There he displayed some 10,000 cards and advertised that he could reproduce photos on postcards for clients.  Apparently, however, his business suffered, perhaps because of the national depression that broke out that year and, by the time of the 1910 census, he was back as a salesman in crockery, along with books, calendars and steel die engravers for printers.  In the late teens, he owned the American China Company which seems to have made ceramic insulators, such as those used on the Pacific Electric’s power poles.  Sternad found that Reeves died in 1927 at just 48 years of age.

Naturally with a wealth of images in this album, we can only highlight a few samples, but there are some broad categories represented in it, though we don’t know if this was from a tourist who visited greater Los Angeles and then other areas of California or if it was put together for some other purpose.

From the top of the thrilling namesake ride at Chutes Park, south of downtown.

In any case, the first dozen pages, with two cards pasted down on each, are scenes from Pasadena, including panoramas of the area, local hotels like the Raymond and Green, landscapes, the Tournament of Roses, and Eagle Rock, as examples.  The parade views from the Tournament are striking as these are still all horse-drawn vehicles and one shows the chariot races that were prominent in early versions of the festival (one champion charioteer was a Pasadena stable owner and former opera singer, Revel English, who became a thoroughbred saddle horse owner in Chino).

The first pair of images contrast “Pasadena in Early Days,” a view from perhaps the 1880s, with “Pasadena Up-To-Date” showing a thriving city in the foreground, though the areas to the north, presumably towards Sierra Madre, were not much developed.  There is also a very interesting view of a nearly empty Raymond Avenue downtown with a streetcar in the middle of the thoroughfare, a few horse-drawn conveyances, a small number of pedestrians, but quite a few bicycles, including a number in front of the Elks Hall.

Amidst a group of Los Angeles cards was this one simply labeled “Chinese Actor,” but without any further explanation of the subject and his profession.

Some pretty landscapes are found with cards of Orange Grove Avenue, likely on Millionaires’ Row, Marengo Avenue, Library Park and the snow capped San Gabriels from the McNally Estate with its profuse landscape and arched driveway entry.  Another Orange Grove Avenue view shows a couple of impressive Craftsman and Mission Revival style mansions.

The following fourteen pages, or twenty-eight cards, are of a multiplicity of scenes in Los Angeles, which underwent its third major development boom, following those of the late 1860s and first half of the 1870s and then the late 1880s, in the first years of the 20th century.  Among the images here are views of downtown streets, prominent public buildings like City Hall and the County Courthouse, structures such as the Chamber of Commerce Building and the California Club, houses of the rich and prominent such as those of Edward Doheny and Thomas D. Stimson, parks like Elysian and Westlake, churches, and places of amusement including Cawston’s Ostrich Farm and Chutes Park.

Sheep grazing on a ranch belonging to Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, perhaps one that was acquired by him in the aftermath of the failure of the Temple and Workman bank three decades prior.

Of these Los Angeles images, there are several of downtown scenes, where the crowded environs of Spring and 1st or Spring Street looking north from about Fifth, are in contrast to the shots of City Hall and the Courthouse and a very interesting “Broadway at Night” view looking south from about Temple.  Two Boyle Heights cards on a page show the “Hollenbeck Home for the Aged,” formed from the substantial estate of John E. Hollenbeck and his wife Elizabeth Hatsfeldt, the latter creating the senior facility in the 1890s in honor of her late husband, and, across Boyle Avenue, the park named for Hollenbeck and on land donated by Mrs. Hollenbeck and William H. Workman, one of the three founders, along with John Lazzarovich and Isaias W. Hellman, of the community.

There are also a couple of excellent panoramas in this section, including one “From Huntington Bldg.,” a structure built at Main and Sixth streets in 1905 and which was better known as the Pacific Electric Building, the terminal of the massive streetcar system assembled and built by Henry E. Huntington.   The view takes in much of the business and commercial district of the burgeoning city.  There is also a rare double card providing an impressive wide-scale look at the city from the Courthouse and looking southwest.

A beautiful scene of what was labeled “Santiago River near Orange,” but was actually Santiago Creek.

Somewhat incongruously included in this section is a card simply titled “Chinese Actor,” showing a young man in traditional clothing in a studio setting, though there is no indication as to what he acted in.  Another notable and distinctive image is taken from the top (usually views are from the sides at the bottom) of the famous Chutes at the park of the same name, situated between Grand Avenue, Main Street, Washington Boulevard and 21st Street, south of downtown.  The ride featured boats that barreled down a track on a steep ramp into a lake.

Ten pages, comprising twenty cards, extend further out into the greater Los Angeles region, including views of the Mt. Lowe Railway; the washing of oranges; sheep grazing on one of “Lucky” Baldwin’s ranches, perhaps one acquired in the aftermath of the failure of the Temple and Workman bank in the 1870s; a fine view of Avalon on Santa Catalina Island; the “Santiago River,” actually Santiago Creek, near Orange, in a state of nature that is unimaginable today; a pretty view of the surf at Laguna Beach; and a 30-horse team harvesting hay on what might be the Irvine Ranch in Orange County.

The strange “California Curiosities” of a tarantula hawk,trap-door spider, horned toad, scorpion, and a tarantula.

The Mt. Lowe view is somewhat typical showing the remarkable incline funicular railway leading up Echo Mountain, though the view is more distant and elevated than the usual images of this leisure landmark above Pasadena.   In addition to the grazing sheep at one of Baldwin’s properties, there is an image of the dense and lush landscapes of his residence at Rancho Santa Anita, where the Los Angeles County Arboretum is now.  A common view shows the panoramic San Bernardino Valley from Smiley Heights in Redlands.  There is also one indication of the rapidly developing oil industry of California with a view of the seaside forest of derricks at Summerland, south of Santa Barbara.

There are also some true novelties, including a strange card titled “California Curiosities” and featuring mounted specimens of a tarantula hawk, a trap-door spider, a horned toad, a scorpion and a tarantula; and a bizarre view of a small dog or puppy sitting on a massive pumpkin, in which is nestled a calf.

The stunning Vernal Falls at Yosemite National Park.

The last dozen pages take in the natural wonders of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, including some of the amazing features of Yosemite National Park, the gorgeous environs of Lake Tahoe; and the majesty of the towering redwoods of Yosemite.  With that famed national park, there are great shots of the Three Brothers, Sentinel Rock, Overhanging Rock, Yosemite Falls, Nevada Falls, Vernal Falls, El Capitan, Mirror Lake and, of course, Half Dome.

At Tahoe are the Emerald Bay Falls, a boat near a launch, Mount Tallac from the lake, the drive at “Cornelian” [Carnelian] Bay, and a peaceful scene of a woman holding an umbrella while reclining in a canoe at the lake’s edge.  At the groves of redwoods at Yosemite, are the “three generals,” Sherman, Sheridan and Grant, as well as a massive fallen redwood, and “The Stricken Giant,” a tree you could drive through in the Tuolumne Grove.  It was almost as if the compiler of the album visited the Los Angeles region and then made the trip north to these stunning locales to complete a trip.


Carnelian Bay at Lake Tahoe.

Looking through this album is very much as if you were getting a tour of greater Los Angeles along with the trip to the natural landmarks of the Sierras nearly 120 years ago.  Even though these postcards were cheaply produced, the quality of the reproductions are impressive, even as Walter Reeves only worked in the field for a short time during that first decade of the 20th century, when the region was in the midst of another period of major growth.

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