“Characteristics of Sociability Combined With Scientific Research”: An Invitation and Tickets for the Annual Reception of the Southern California Academy of Sciences, 11 June 1896

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Another of the many examples of how dramatically greater Los Angeles transformed in the late 19th century was the incredible growth in education and what we often call now “lifelong learning.” In this case, we highlight, from the Homestead’s collection, an invitation and three tickets to the annual reception of the Southern California Academy of Sciences, an organization still with us and which just celebrated its 130th anniversary.

The rise of all forms of learning, whether it was the spread of free public schools and more attendance at high schools, the increase in higher education including the formation of the University of Southern California in 1880 and Occidental College several years later, and the growth of clubs that emphasized learning, such as those for women, for vocations and, here, those interested in science, was plainly manifested.

Los Angeles Express, 17 November 1891.

There was also the incredible expansion of scientific endeavor in all field from astronomy to zoology with so many disciplines in between and it may be no accident that the establishment, in November 1891, of the Southern California Science Association, was in tandem with educational and scientific growth along with the recently concluded Boom of the 1880s, centered in 1887-1888 during the term of William H. Workman (nephew of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste) as mayor of Los Angeles.

With the onrush of new residents from all over the United States, as well as Europe and other parts of the world, came a burst of newly established institutions of all kinds. As with most examples, those involved were almost exclusively white and a significant majority from the middle and upper classes of society. So, it always bears remembering that ethnic and class differences were enormous in greater Los Angeles during this period.

Los Angeles Times, 15 April 1896.

The Southern California Science Association remained with that moniker for four-and-a-half years until 12 May 1896 when it was decided to rename the organization as the Southern California Academy of Sciences. Even as there seemed to be little problem with the use of “academy of sciences,” there was some concern expressed. in the 15 April edition of the Los Angeles Times, about whether to keep the regional moniker of “Southern California” or to adopt “Los Angeles.

One correspondent during the debate about the name change felt that, because there was already a California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco (though as often the case with that city, the use of the state’s name did not necessarily translate to membership or activities much beyond the City by the Bay), it would be better to follow the examples of New York City and Chicago in being place-specific—of course, so many things are named “New York” instead of “New York City” as if there was no designation between the Big Apple and the rest of the Empire State, so, go figure!

Times, 1 June 1896.

Secretary Bernard R. Baumgardt reminded his fellows “that many members of the association lived outside Los Angeles and might not like to have the name changed making it purely local of application. President William H. Knight felt that the questions raised by the letter-writer “were not serious, as it was certain the State would eventually be divided” so that there would be a “South California” or a “Southern California,” so “the society having a similar appellation would be named in harmony with the new State.” An amendment to use “Los Angeles” was defeated 12-7 and the vote to rename as the “Southern California Academy of Sciences” was 13-1.

The next monthly meeting of the newly rechristened organization was for its astronomical section on 6 June at the Mt. Lowe Observatory, which opened a few years earlier as part of the remarkable attraction that was in the San Gabriel Mountains above Pasadena. With reduced fares on the railway that ascended the steep slopes of the range, participants also benefited from a presentation on Saturn by the observatory’s astronomer, Dr. Lewis Swift, who was also to show guests the Omega Centauri star cluster. It was stated that this was not possible to see in any other American observatory because of the location of the one on Mt. Lowe.

Herald, 9 June 1896.

Less than a week after the visit to the observatory, came the annual meeting. Described in the invitation as a “Special Microscopical Exhibit, and Other Attractive Features,” along with brief speeches, reports, “Plans for the Summer Vacation,” music and light refreshments, the event was held at the assembly room, on Broadway between 3rd and 4th streets, of the well-known Friday Morning Club, comprised of some of the Angel City’s most elite cadre of white women. The invite and three tickets were sent to Rufus W. Keeler, an electrical engineer who moved to and spent the rest of his life at Palo Alto, home of Stanford University.

In its report on the event, originally supposed to have been held at the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce Building on the 9th, the 12 June edition of the Los Angeles Herald stated

A large number of guests were in attendance as well as most of the scientists of Los Angeles, who, together formed both a delightful gathering and a zealous audience; the affairs taking the characteristics of sociability combined with scientific research.

After a welcome by Knight, a science journalist and amateur astronomer, “the attention of the guests was called to the fine display of entomological specimens [insects]” as well as “numerous microscopes brilliantly lighted with many lamps for special inspection of bacteria, sea grass, etc.” A Mr. Carson also loaned his collection of butterflies and Indian stone pipes, while attendees were also welcomed to visit his South Main Street house “for the further study of the specimens.”

Herald, 12 June 1896.

There was music from Martin’s Orchestra, as well, while Knight’s address was noted for his statement, paraphrased by the paper, that the planet “was a small oasis of knowledge bordered by a vast desert of mysteries.” Great minds had, over time, reclaimed knowledge from that desert and, while he opined that was harder to do in the modern age, he allowed that “all might forward the boundary of knowledge and widen the oasis.”

Baumgardt recapped the recent trip to Mt. Lowe and the Herald’s editor, William S. Creighton, “digressed on the object of living” which he opined was “not the attainment of happiness, but the pursuit of knowledge, which prepared for a higher life. George T. Montgomery, the newly installed bishop of the Monterey-Los Angeles diocese of the Roman Catholic Church, spoke briefly and “claimed that true science and revelation would eventually come to the same conclusion.” There was also the announcement of new members who’d recently joined, including a few from the San Gabriel Valley and three women.

Times, 12 June 1896.

In its coverage, the Times focused on the butterflies, said to have been collected from all over the world and in a wide variety of types, while these were “supplemented by a case of beetles and dragon-flies, and by many mineralogical specimens, piled on the tables around the cases.” As for the microscopes, the slides contained “all sorts of minute and interesting things, and applied to the lenses were the eyes of many lovers of the wonderful in nature and science.”

Whereas the Herald stated there were 18 new members, the Times noted there were four more than that and it also recorded that the trip to the Mt. Lowe Observatory included some 100 guests “and a few stayed up all night to observe Mars and Venus without the aid of the instrument” used to scan the wide expanse of visible space in the telescope. Dr. Anstruther Davidson of the academy’s botanical section discussed the fact that the organization had more than 1,000 species in its collection and “put in a plea for the large trees” asking that members take measurements so “that data may be furnished for future use.”

William L. Watts, a state geologist who did some of the most important study of conditions with the rapidly burgeoning petroleum industry in greater Los Angeles, talked very briefly in praise “of the good work of the academy in cultivating a closer acquaintance between humanity and the environment. It elaborated on Bishop Montgomery’s address in which he referred to science and religion as “the two great manifestations of God, through natural and supernatural means” which had to work in harmony,” while he also opined that, one day, humans would come to religion through science because “God was the great substratum underlying both. As for the paper’s rival, Creighton, the Times observed that he “rose and wandered into the realm of metaphysics, speaking at length upon the whyness of the thus.”

As for the Academy, it became incorporated a little more than a decade later and one of its active members led early excavations at the Rancho La Brea tar pits that, with the wealth of fossils and other materials found there, led to a movement to build a repository for them. In 1913, the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art (notice the order!) was opened and this is now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

While the organization met for decades in varied locations and not on a consistent schedule, generally meetings began to be held each month at the Museum by the mid-1940s, while, starting in the early Sixties, annual conferences began at what became Cal State Long Beach and then were held at other colleges or universities—the 2022 edition, held last month, was at Cal State Fullerton.

In the early years of the 20th century, a monthly publication was established, though this was soon reduced to issues appearing three times a year, which is still the case. A research training program for high school students and funded research projects for those at that level were later added, with some of the scholars sharing their work at the annual meeting. Other student grants and awards are also offered by the Academy as it has now passed the 130-year mark of existence promoting the pursuit of scientific endeavor in greater Los Angeles.

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