by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Among the many remarkable transformations in Los Angeles during the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the rise of the use of electricity and gas for all manner of commercial and residential purposes, from street lighting to manufacturing to cooking in the home. We tend to take for granted the ability to flip a switch or turn on a burner; that is, until we have a blackout or there is an interruption in our gas service. Suddenly and starkly, we realize just how dependent we are on our utilities to provide us the materials we need for so much of daily life.
Los Angeles had its first gas works in 1866, with a small plant located on the west side of Main Street across the Plaza and its first street lights were gas-lit lamps. The city got in early on the use of electric streetlights when its city council issued a two-year contract in September 1882 to Charles H. Howland, who was with a San Francisco electric company, to develop a system. He very quickly set up a 30 kilowatt (!) plant at the corner of Alameda and Banning streets, between Temple and First and the Los Angeles Electric Company incorporated the following month with $150,000 in stock issued in $10 increments. One of the incorporators was Robert M. Widney, who was president (and F.P.F. Temple, the first treasurer) of the Spring and Sixth Street Railway, the first streetcar system in town. It was best known at the time for installing and maintaining several 150-foot tall light masts.
The company grew by leaps and bounds as the Boom of the Eighties following within several years and, by the early 1890s, it was renamed the Los Angeles Gas and Electric Company—see below for more on this history. With more exponential growth as the city and outlying areas developed, the firm was reconstituted, with a merger of a Pasadena gas and electric firm, in 1909 as the Los Angeles Gas and Electric Corporation. It continued in operation for over a quarter of a century and was, after voter approval of a $47 million bond issue in December 1936, the electric unit was acquired by the city-owned Bureau of Light and Power. The final arrangements were in place during early 1937 and later that year the bureau was reorganized as the Department of Water and Power. The gas portion of the company was sold to Southern California Gas Corporation.
Tonight’s featured object from the Homestead’s collection is the 1 April 1929 edition of the corporation’s quarterly magazine, The L.A. Service Review. At the end of the publication is a short piece titled “30 Years Have Made a Difference” with a photo showing the modest gas works of the end of the 19th century and the much larger plant of the late Twenties, situated just west of the Los Angeles River not far from where the electric company’s little plant was situated. The article noted that “thirty years ago, we made coal and water gas, chiefly from coal brought from Australia or Wales,” whereas power generation was localized in 1929. Moreover, production in the late Ninties “was not twice as much as our consumers how use in a single cold day.”
Another notable article was a summary of the mid-winter meeting of the American Gas Association held in the city in early February. When eastern gas company executives arrived by train at San Bernardino, they were transported to the Mission Inn in Riverside for a lunch with the reception committee comprised of LAG&E president Addison Day; F.S. Wade, who was the head of the Southern Counties Gas Company; and A.B. MacBeth, president of the Southern California Gas Company, now SoCal Gas, long the dominant firm in our region outside of the City of Los Angeles.
The conference was held at the Biltmore Hotel with sessions concerning technical matters in the industry, while papers were given by nationally recognized men in the field. Among the facts cited in the article was the 14.5 million homes were supplied with gas around the country and that nearly half of the 28 million families in America cooked with gas. Natural gas production in 1928 totaled 1.5 trillion cubic feet, while maufactured gas totaled 500 billion cubic feet. Gas was involved in above 21,000 manufacturing uses as well as “for such domestic purposes as house heating, water heating, refrigeration and cooking.” Again, over 90 years later, we’ve become accustomed to the ubiquitous use of gas in our lived, but, in 1929, there were plenty of people who could easily remember the pre-gas era.
A week after the conference, the company held its “Old Guard” banquet at the Biltmore, with that moniker applied to those who worked at the firm for at least a decade. There were over 360 such members of that “club,” with more than thirty achieving that rank at the confab. Among those who could boast of thirty years of service was Vice-President Champ S. Vance, one of the original incorporators of 1909, while an inspector, a salesman and the chief salesman were also recognized for their achievement, though there were five employees who had more than thirty-five years of service. There were a baker’s dozen of 25-year employees, almost twenty who’d put in two decades, and fifteen who’d worked for the firm for that number of years.
There was also a tribute to a half-dozen “Old Guardsmen” who died during the previous year and to another six who’d retired. It was added that “entertainment was provided entirely by employees of the company in the form of the ‘Old Guard Minstrels,’ a musical comedy skit entitled ‘Flaps and Flappers,’ the L.A. Service Orchestra, and a number of other musical numbers.” Given how pervasive blackface was at the time, one wonders if the “Old Guard Minstrels” performed in that guise. A separate article briefly discussed the employee orchestra and its performances at the banquet being so popular that they reprised the show twice at the corporation’s auditorium in the main offices on Flower Street just south of 8th Street (before 1924, headquarters was on Hill Street south of 6th).
As for President Day, he was the recipient of a special honor in the form “of a beautifully bound and illuminated tribute and ‘Diploma of Good Will'” recognizing “his 34 years of service and his rise from the ranks to his high position in the corporation.” He, in fact, assumed the highest office in the company in 1928 and he was feted for the fact that “hard work has brought him to the top; he has climbed the ladder step by step.” Moreover, it was noted, “great men are few, and when one comes from our midst, we should be very happy. How much better off we are to have our leader chosen from among ourselves! He knows our needs, and there is a personal contact between us that could not exist with a stranger.”
Day also provided over the annual meeting of the corporation’s stockholders, held on 6 March and at which the existing directors and officers were duly reelected. Day’s remarks included the assertion that “we face the new year with confidence and satisfaction” and the summary that “while the figures which describe our oprations for 1928 are not startling, yet in the light of present business conditions, the showing is highly satisfactory.” It was noted that investments in plants grew by some $6.5 million, sales increased 5 1/2% from 1927, while sales of electricity was about double that. There were almost 13,000 new gas and not quite 9,000 electric meters installed and gross earnings of over $22.3 million represented a modest increase of almost $700,000 from 1927.
As for major projects undertaken in 1928, a highlight was the acquisition of land for offices in Alhambra (a photo of this office is included), Huntington Park and Inglewood, reflecting major areas of growth in the region in recent years. A new substation, with construction started in February, was being at a cost of $200,000 on Hobart Boulevard just north of Olympic Boulevard in what is now the Koreatown area. There was also a generator and related equipment for a station at Seal Beach in Orange County (with a separate article about some 200 members of the regional chapter of the national power enigneers’ organization visting the plant followed by a dinner at the Hotel Virginia in Long Beach), two new electric substations, a couple of miles of underground conduit, almost 330 mile of regular electric wire, and fifty-five miles of gas mains.
The value of all the firm’s plants was about $100 million and a separate article noted that ground was broken at the end of March for a new company office building in Pasadena across from the city hall and which is now the Crown City’s permit office. The summary of the meeting concluded with Day’s remarks to the shareholders that “we face the new year with confidence and satisfaction. We have an adequate supply of natural gas and our electric generating plant has a generous excess capacity. Our gas and electric distribution systems are ample for the service of our consumers, and the physical condition of our entire property is excellent.”
Another major item in the publication had to do with the corporation’s holding company, Pacific Lighting Corporation, which on 12 March took control of the Southern California Gas Corporation, which was previously Pacific’s major competitor and which was owned formerly by Pacific Light and Power Company. Pacific Lighting was formed in San Francisco in 1886 by 20-year old Christian O.G. Miller and Walter B. Cline and three years later, just as the Boom of the Eighties was ending, the pair bought the Los Angeles Gas Company. The next year, 1890, Pacific Lighting took control of the Los Angeles Electric Company (see above) and Cline became president of both the gas and electric companies.
It was in 1909 that Pacific consolidated the two firms into Los Angeles Gas and Electric and Cline continued as the head of the new corporation, while Miller, who was the first treasurer, assumed the presidency of Pacific in 1898 and retained that title until the time of the merger of Pacific Lighting and Southern California Gas. This union, which involved issuing over 200,000 shares of the former’s stock in exchange for 600,000 shares of the latter firm, brought combined assets of about $192 million, with gross earnings for 1928 at over $46 million and net earnings at just under $6 million.
Miller stated that “the subsidiaries of Pacific Lighting Corporation have long been purhcasers of gas from Southern California Gas Company and the fact that the properties of the subsidiaries of the parent company adjoin each other in many instances lends strength to the firm belief that unified management and unified operation will result in benefit both to the communities served and to the shareholders of the two public utilities involved.”
Other articles in the magazine concern items specific to employees or, rather, what company brass felt it important to convey to and about their workers. For example, safety was always a paramount matter and “Safety Work Shows Fine Results” discussed the company’s accident and cost record for the previous five years and offered that it was vital to understand “the immense humanitarian and financial benefit that can result from direct and continued safety work.” It was stated that there was a two-thirds decline in accidents and an over 80% drop in days lost since 1925, though it was added that only a little fifty of nearly 350 reported accidents were considered serious in that the worker lost two or more weeks of work. Naturally, the professed priority was the “decreased suffering and increased wage earning and happiness” of workers, while the reduction in costs and savings to the firm was secondary.
Also noted was a new opportunity for employees to buy stock of Pacific Lighting on an installment plan, because the stock price was very high at $70 each, so there was a $2 per month payment. There was no interest on these payments, though the subscriber would, of course, receive no dividends until the stock amount was fully paid. Subscription rights were made available on the same basis as to non-employee stock owners.
Another common practice for many corporations was continuing education for employees and there was an article noting that over 400 workers from various departments in the corporation enrolled in a six-part a “Public Utility Practices” course, held in the auditorium of the main office, with the first held on the 1st of March. An examination was to follow with “a large number of worth-while prizes” to “those who make the highest standings,” though executives, department heads and assistant department chiefs were excluded.
Among the topics of the course was the history of public utilities, the difference between steam and hydro-electric power, rates, government regulation, financing, public relations, the “Correct Utilization of Gas” and new developments in the industry. For a “topical examination,” the first prize was an all-expenses paid trip to the Pacific Coast conventions of either the gas or electric associations, while seocnd prize was $25, and third prize $15. For a true/false test, the first prize was $25. second prize was $15 and third prize was $10. $5 prizes were offered up to 10% of those enrolled, which sounds as if there were four of these in each category.
Finally, there were articles on the Girls’ First Aid Team and its competing in the regional gas association convention and at other contests; the formation of a new “L.A. Service First Aid Club;” a President’s Cup for golfing teams of those in the company’s Employees’ Association; an announcement that, for 1929, all employees would receive two weeks vacation time each year with Day’s expressed hope that “you may obtain a greater measure of rest, recreation and good health that you have previously enjoyed;” and a “Convention on Courtesy” started in February and which, over four meetings, concerned courtesy within the company, in the field, over the phone and at a service counter, with an end product being “a Courtesy Code, which can be put in printed form and given to all employees.”
The magazine is a fascinating look both at the operations of a major regional utility in the late 1920s, as well as how companies handled employee magazines as part of management-worker relations. By the end of the year, however, the Great Depression erupted and, as the economy worsened, there was a major shift to government-owned utilities, reflected in the sale of the company’s electric portion to the City of Los Angeles.