“May the People Renew Their Allegiance to the Immortal Principles of Equality and Right”: The Independence Day Celebration in Los Angeles, 4 July 1889

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The great Boom of the Eighties, which peaked as William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, served as mayor of Los Angeles in 1887 and 1888, was going bust, but this, of course, did not hinder Los Angeles residents from an expansive celebration of the 113th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1889.

With its parade, speeches, music, decorations and fireworks show, the Angel City, along with other regional communities, such as Santa Monica, Norwalk and Avalon on Santa Catalina Island, made merry on the holiday in ways that will be, in some cases, quite familiar to us now, but, in others, unrecognizable.

Today’s featured artifact from the Homestead’s holdings is a large format cabinet card photograph of a group of men and boys standing in front of the elaborate window dressing for the Fourth at the People’s Store, one of the best-known mercantile establishments in Los Angeles for many years and which later took on the name of its founding family, Hamburger’s, and which, in turn, morphed into the May Company.

Los Angeles Herald, 4 July 1889.

The business was located at 135 South Spring in the Phillips Block, one of the largest and most ornamented commercial structures of the era and built by Louis Phillips (born Galefsky in Poland), one of the few Jews in the region who was a rural rancher and farmer, with large holdings in modern Pomona (where his 1875 French Second Empire house still stands and the residential tract of Phillips Ranch is named in his honor.)

It is undoubtedly members of the Hamburger family, including founder Asher and his sons David and Moses, that comprise at least those standing closest to the photographer, identified by a pencil inscription on the reverse as Aime D. Marchand (1835-1903), a native of Belgium, who came to Gold Rush California as a teenager and worked in mining while dabbling in photography.

The tall storefront with its large plate glass windows allowed for, on the north side, an impressive display including red, white and blue draperies, bunting, streamers and other fabric elements, a pinwheel with “E Pluribus Unum” at the center, a cannon, and a large portrait of George Washington. On the bottom of the mount is written, also in pencil, “Windows Decorated by J.M. Walters.”

The People’s Store, run by Asher Hamburger and his sons David and Moses, as decorated by J.M. Walters for Independence Day and photographed by Aime D. Marchand in 1889.

It is also interesting to see the south-side display of stocking and other items, the outdoor fixtures that look to have been gas lights, and the second floor window signs for the California Loan and Trust Company and attorneys J. Marion Brooks, briefly the federal district attorney before entering private practice, and James G. Howard, this latter long a prominent member of the local bar.

The committee in charge of the festivities for the Fourth held a contest offering a $25 gold medal for the best decorations in the city and the Los Angeles Herald, in its review of businesses and their displays in its edition of that day, noted that “the People’s Store has one of the best displays to be found in the city. In the show window is a magnificent large flag and a handsome monument.

Los Angeles Times, 4 July 1889.

On the 5th, in remarking that “the city was more extensive decorated than it has ever been before,” the Los Angeles Times reported that

the Messrs. Hamburger must have expended a considerable sum of money in decorating the People’s Store in the Phillips Block. The whole front of their house was decorated with bunting, streamers and flags, tastefully arranged, and the show windows were handsomely dressed. It was next to impossible for a person to pass without taking a look.

With respect to the events of the day, the Herald wrote that “at day-break . . . a salute of forty-two guns at the West End, and the explosion of bombs and giant crackers in other portions of the city, announced to the citizens that Independence Day had arrived, and that its celebration had already commenced.” So, unlike now, when fireworks, as permitted for individuals and when done in community shows, are usually set off at night, Angelenos of 130 or so years ago got started early in the morning.

Herald, 4 July 1889.

Across the streets, at about one hundred foot intervals, were streamers with flags and other patriotic emblems and, as noted above, a great many business blocks were decorated. People streamed into downtown from other parts of the city and streetcar and rail companies offered a 50% discount on fares, so that the paper said 2,000 came in via their own vehicles and four times that by rail during the morning hours.

By 10:30, as parade participants gathered at Main and 6th streets, it was stated that the streets were thronged to such an extent that moving around was difficult, while people gathered at open windows and on rooftops to get great views. Invited guests had a drape and awning-covered receiving area at the Nadeau Block, at Spring and 1st streets, which came in handy as “in the middle of the day [it] was so warm as to be a trifle uncomfortable.” Among those viewing from this locale were Mayor Henry T. Hazard, who succeeded Workman, and members of the City Council.

Times, 4 July 1889.

The parade, averred to be “one of the best ever seen in this city,” was headed by Police Chief James Frank Burns and others in his department, including Captain Emil Harris, one of the few Jewish law enforcement officials of high rank during the era. The grand marshal, A.W. Barrett and his aides, including Workman’s son Boyle, a future president of the City Council, and other prominent figures like future mayor Thomas Rowan, Refugio Bilderrain, and state legislator Reginaldo F. del Valle, were accompanied by the band, officers and regiments of the 7th Infantry of the state national guard.

Other divisions included the personnel of the seven stations of the Los Angeles Fire Department; Sheriff Martin Aguirre and members of his department; bands from the area including the newly formed Orange County carved out of the southeastern portion of Los Angeles County; decorated vehicles of many local businesses advertising their wares from soap to beer to furniture to fruit encased in ice (a cigar company, of course, handed out stogies along the route; and much more. The route went up Main to the Plaza area, then down Main to Spring at the Temple Block and followed Spring to 6th, where the procession disbanded after about two hours.

Herald, 5 July 1889.

Shortly afterward, a crowd gathered in Mayor Hazard’s Pavilion, later the site of the Temple Baptist/Philharmonic Auditorium, for the literary exercises, which began with Mayor Hazard introducing President of the Day, attorney G. Wiley Wells, a Union Army officer during the Civil War, who noted that, what was to the founding fathers an experiment was to the current generation “a grand fact” with the United States “envied of all the nations of the civilized world.” He paid tribute to all of those who built and defended the nation in the prior 113 years.

After a prayer and reading of the Declaration of Independence by David W. Edelman, son of the prominent rabbi Abraham W. Edelman, a “Memorial of Flowers” was enacted by 43 children representing the states and the District of Columbia and carrying flags and wreaths to a monument at the center of the stage at which they recited patriotic lines. The Herald opined that the presentation was more appropriate to Memorial Day than Independence Day, but added that “it was nevertheless successfully carried out.”

Herald, 5 July 1889.

A pair of recitations followed and the exercises concluded with a speech by General Henry G. Rollins, another Civil War veteran and a popular orator. Rollins noted that Independence Day was “a day of commemoration” and “is an occasion of joy and anniversary” during which “we would rather, on this day of all days, praise the good we have than dwell on the evils that may be.” In praising the Declaration of Independence as the greatest document in history, Rollins than ramped up his rhetoric by exclaiming:

Freedom, born upon rugged soil, child of necessity, nurtured amid scenes of conflict and of struggle, hardened by the cruel hand of oppression, driven to self-defence by imperious tyranny, maddened by fiendish imposition, compelled to self-respect by self-assertion, with strong blood curdling, at fever heat, with uplifted hands and a brave heart, declared, in thunder tones, that “All men are created equal” and “Of right out to be” free and independent.

He marveled at the wondrous changes wrought since 1776 in transportation, trade, the development of natural resources, agriculture, communications, and industry. He folded in the Gold Rush, the Civil War, western movement and the growth of big cities, big banks, big industry, big mansions, and a big military to extoll the virtues of a big country.

Herald, 5 July 1889.

Rollins lauded the “great home of brave men and fair women” as a nation where there were no tyrants and no slaves, a lack of foreign entanglements, and “untarnished by corruption,” so that the United States could proudly “go forward on your grand march down the highway of history” and each July 4th “may the people renew their allegiance to the immortal principles of equality and right.” One assumes, however, that there were few Latinos, save a few upper-class Californios like del Valle or Bilderrain, and certainly no Blacks or Asians who heard Rollins and his flights of oratorical fancy.

Once the speech ended, 200 school girls sang The Star-Spangled Banner, which did not become the national anthem until 1931, and, as Pomona’s Patrick C. Tonner, a noted regional bard, could not attend to render a poetical reading, the audience sang the hymn America and a benediction was given to end the proceedings.

Herald, 5 July 1889.

At 3:30, hordes of folk, perhaps as many as 15,000, crowded Sixth Street Park, also known as Central Park and then Pershing Square, and bypassed the rules by sitting on the grass and gathering wherever space was available to hear a band concert, which included a competition that granted a water service set to the winning ensemble. While three bands, all from Orange County, were scheduled to play, the one from Anaheim dropped out due to some members not showing up and forcing the conductor to order a withdrawal, leaving those from Santa Ana and Orange to contest for the prize. Both were credits to their cities, but the former won out. Meanwhile, the Herald noted that, while the park was rather trampled underfoot, “water and care for a few days will put the park in shape again.”

The Los Angeles Times enhanced its coverage with cartoon vignettes from the day’s festivities, including Civil War veterans marching, a bevy of beauties on a carriage, and a couple showing the detonation of fireworks, with one man appearing to be Chinese and another a woman startled by works set off by what looks like an imp with a devilish grin.

Times, 5 July 1889.

The paper added that there were some difficulties experienced by the committee in getting subscriptions because of charitable drives for those suffering from fire and flood, presumably including the terrible Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania at the end of May. Still, it accounted the “celebration as the greatest Los Angeles has seen up to the present date” and noted that “the day was free from serious fires and accidents to a wonderful degree.” The parade, too, was stated as “the largest and finest display of the kind ever given in the city” as officials “at last grasped the metropolitan idea” and made sure the streets were adequately cleared for the processional.

With respect to the fireworks show, the Times was less complimentary regarding how people were notified about the location because it was generally said that it would take place “behind the Normal School” on Poundcake Hill where the Central Library is now. Yet, the site was actually “some three blocks northwest” in the Bunker Hill area or near it so many onlookers found themselves in poor positions, seeing “the tops of the rockets as they came up, and little more,” while others wandered so far that they only saw half the show if they got to the right place.

Times, 5 July 1889.

Moreover, only about twenty percent of those who flocked to the area could take streetcars, which was deemed another issue, but, despite these challenges, “there was an immense crowd scattered over the streets and vacant lots in the valley west of Flower Street.” This last was dominated by pedestrians, while Pearl Street, renamed Figueroa eight years later, was crowded with a couple hundred carriages, and people sat on curbs and on the grass-covered slopes to enjoy the show.

The paper opined that “the display was very good” especially as “the wheels and fountains were very pretty and the set pieces quite well done.” These latter included a replica of a cable car (such systems being in vogue at the time in the Angel City before being replaced by electric lines within a short time) and a ship’s bombardment of a fort. Those setting off the fireworks, though, were deemed to lack experience because “many of the pieces did not go off as they should have done, but burned piecemeal.” A band also played, though many of the roughly 6,000 people in the vicinity could not hear the music. To sum up, the Times offered that “it was not so bad after all” and most, unable to take a streetcar, “walked home with great good nature.”

Times, 5 July 1889.

Near the Temple Block, at the corner of Spring and Temple streets, the paper reported on “a pitched battle” between “two rival gangs with big firecrackers” and said that, between 9 and 11 p.m., “no one was safe to pass along” while horse and cable drawn streetcars “were obliged to run the gauntlet” with minor damage to vehicles. Spectators became participants, buying fireworks from boys “who were turning an honest penny,” but serious injury was avoided. Generally, the only reported problems were a national guardsman who was overcome by the midday heat, a woman who fainted as the parade passed her at Main and 1st, and a gent who cut his cheek when he fell from a streetcar at Hill and 6th and was treated at Mayor Hazard’s home on Fort Street (soon renamed Broadway.)

It is interesting to compare the 1889 celebration of Independence Day in the Angel City to our modern version. Literary exercises are generally extinct, fireworks shows much more carefully planned and situated in defined venues, parades still do exist here and there, and “pitched battles” of fireworks, legal and illegal, also are very much present. Given the extraordinary drought, though, one hopes that fires can be kept to a minimum and that celebrants will be “safe and sane” as we commemorate the nation’s birthday, whether or not we only “praise the good” rather than “dwell on the evils that may be.”

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