The Evolution of Christmas: Selling the Holiday in Los Angeles with The Elite Caterers and Confectioners, 1924

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

There are few gifts more commonly and consistently given at the holidays than sweets, be they candy, jams and jellies, cakes and others, and the featured artifact from the Museum’s collection for this edition of “The Evolution of Christmas” series and its “Selling the Holiday in Los Angeles” subsidiary is a Christmas 1924 pamphlet for The Elite Caterers and Confectioners, a firm with headquarters on Flower Street between 6th and 7th streets in downtown Los Angeles and branches at Pasadena and Hollywood.

The enterprise was then a decade old, but had its origins another ten years before that, as briefly noted in a prior post on this blog concerning Angel City cafeteria history by former colleague Alexandra Rasic. In that piece, Alex noted that several sources credited Helen Mosher “with popularizing cafeterias,” specifically the opening of one on Hill Street between 3rd and 4th streets in 1905. In short order (!), a veritable boom of cafeterias followed in succeeding years as Alex’s multi-part post discussed in delicious detail.

Los Angeles Times, 15 May 1905.

Another notable source was from the Los Angeles Record of 8 July 1925 when Mosher’s brother, George H., Jr., contributed “The Origin of the Cafeteria” in response to an article in that paper. In his missive, George wrote,

The idea of a cafeteria was brought to Los Angeles by Miss Helen S. Mosher who, in 1904, was operating one for the Y.W.C.A. [Young Women’s Christian Association] in Jackson, Mich. She came to California in October of that year and formed a partnership with Mrs. Pauline Botts (now deceased) and Mrs. Nellie Esteeb. They opened this place at 344 South Hill street in May, 1905, and operated with considerable success for a number of years, afterwards opening a branch at 615 South Spring street, and later on one in San Francisco. About 1910 they sold out the three places and retired from business.

George added that the Boos Brothers (also discussed in Alex’s post) emulated his sister’s place and expanded on the concept until “Los Angeles today has the most wonderful cafeterias in the United States.” He concluded by attesting to the veracity of his history because he “was interested in their [his sister and partners] success and assisted them in many ways in their first organization.”

Times, 8 March 1914.

Notably, the Monrovia News of 5 August 1916 substantiated much of George, Jr.’s statement, recording that “a woman’s idea . . . has changed the habits of half of Los Angeles and spread its influence up and down the Pacific coast and inland, until in most cities of the United States the idea is finding lodgement and making fortunes for those who grasp it in time.” The paper noted that Helen ran a small Y.W.C.A. lunch counter, associated with Esteeb [spelled Estab in the account] and Botts and had 75 tables and a long steam table, at the end of which was a bench with trays. Diners, when finished eating, took their dishes and trays to the back of the room. The News added that Helen “cleaned up $40,000 on her idea” and told the paper that she did not recall where she derived the name, “but thinks she saw “cafeteria” on the window of a small restaurant in Chicago.”

The Moshers were among the early white residents of Jackson, Michigan, not quite halfway between Ann Arbor and Battle Creek and west of Detroit by about 80 miles. The patriarch of the family was machinist Oliver Mosher, whose son George, Sr. became a prosperous dentist and a vice-president of the state dental association. George and his wife Ermina Hammond had three children: Helen (1863-1943), George H., Jr. (1865-1941) and Sidney H. (1864-1954). Because of his health, George, Sr. moved to Colorado in 1900 and then came to Los Angeles shortly afterward. Before that, however, his namesake son, a traveling salesman, settled in the Angel City around 1890 and Helen came out to spend winters, while Sidney migrated out to complete the family circle.

The Tidings, 29 November 1918.

It may well be that George, Sr. and/or his son provided the funds for Helen and her partners to open what they simply called the Cafeteria. The Los Angeles Times of 15 May 1905 had a short notice that “business people will find good home cooking, [and] quick service at the Cafeteria that will open at 344 S. Hill street, Thursday [the 18th]” with the place open only for lunch from 11 to 2. With the enterprise, including its branches, ended by around 1910 and, assuming the account of the $40,000 windfall is true, it appears that Helen and her brother turned to the next project, the formation of The Elite.

A 3 December 1922 article in the Times, reporting on a $360,000 addition to the firm’s existing Flower Street built (more on this below), stated that the business “was opened in January, 1914, in modest quarters on Seventh street near Figueroa, by Miss Helen Mosher and Ralph Conn,” and there were just three employees, meaning one other person than those two. The name was then The Elite Caterers and Ice-Cream and it was actually on Seventh between Flower and Figueroa, where an alley called Lebanon Street intersects with Seventh.

Times, 22 June 1919.

A short ad for Christmas 1917 stated that the business “will make everything for your luncheon” including “ice cream Santa Clauses and soldiers!” Holiday cakes were also mentioned. In November 1918, a brief description of The Elite in the Roman Catholic newspaper, The Tidings, noted that establishment may not have been well known “but it is one of the best places in the city to get service or for the purchase of pastry, cakes and ice cream.” Interestingly, the piece observed that Conn was the owner and operator and that “he makes a specialty of weddings, teas, lunches and entertainments” with rental of dishes, silverware and linen.

Conn (1862-1941) was said to have been born on a riverboat plying the Mississippi River and his birthplace on census records has been listed as Mississippi, where his parents were born, and Louisiana. Not much could be found about him, but he was working as a confectioner in Denver in 1900, so he may have made the acquaintance of George Mosher, Sr. around that time. In any case, the 1920 federal enumeration listed Conn as a caterer and it may be that he ran the business for Helen Mosher, though the same census listed her as a cafeteria waitress, so it is unclear whether she bowed out of the operation or not. Early that year, the business relocated to the Flower Street location in a newly constructed building,

Pasadena Post, 27 October 1921.

The reason for the lack of clarity about roles in the enterprise is that the aforementioned 1922 article on the new building for what was by then known as The Elite Caterers and Confectioners and which included a large lobby, confectionery and pastry display room, 52-foot long soda fountain, a 300-seat dining room, and a second-floor banquet room with a capacity for 500 diners along with kitchens for making baked goods, candy, and ice cream as well as cooking meals, noted that the officers were George, Jr. as president, Conn as vice-president and “Miss Helen Mosher” as treasurer, though whether this was George, Jr,’s sister or his 22-year old daughter of the same name is the question.

In any case, The Elite grew rapidly along with Los Angeles and the region during another major economic boom. In November 1921, a branch was opened on Colorado Street in Pasadena between Madison and El Molino avenues, followed the next year by a location on Hollywood Boulevard, just west of where the El Capitan Theatre opened in 1926. The enterprise became widely known for its catering, providing meals at its banquet facility or elsewhere for private parties, real estate subdivision lunches, meals for organizations of all types and more.

Los Angeles Record, 3 October 1923.

In addition to its own advertisements, The Elite benefitted from what may be called “camouflaged ads” such as the Times’ feature “Sallie at the Markets” which occasionally promoted the business through such means as an August 1920 example that read, “Don’t be like a friend of mine, who thought she could give her little studio tea herself unassisted by anyone,” before telling readers “I came to her rescue by calling the Elite catering department, and they saved the day,” making “Stephanie’s tea . . . the talk of our colony.” The following February, the paper reported that Conn went on a lengthy Eastern tour to learn the latest in his line, but it seemed more like an ad that a news item!

For a number of years, The Elite also provided massive cakes to the Fifth (or 5th) Street Store, one of the many department stores downtown, for anniversary celebrations. In 1920, for the 15th birthday of the store, The Elite’s Ernest Grether, also the firm’s secretary, designed a 920-pound cake with pink, green and lavender frosting depicting roses, chrysanthemums and a large basket filled with candy flowers. Purportedly, crowds gathered outside a picture window of the building to gawk at the cake.

The Tidings, 29 February 1924.

Three years later, however, the bakers outdid themselves by making a cake that was 100 pounds for each year (that would be 18) of the store’s existence and had a small portion showing the original 1905 building with a much larger one for the newly-finished structure (which the above link discusses) and a bridge with 18 lamps on it connecting the two. This massive cake was considered “a work of art—a masterpiece,” but, of course, every customer making a purchase the following day was entitled to take a piece home!

This brings us to the pamphlet, which explained that, “for many years the Elite Catering Company has maintained a special gift packing department” that made the business “famous through the United States for artistic appeal as well as supreme quality of contents.” These holiday packages were “packed with confections and delicacies typical of California” with each one individually arranged with fruit cake, plum pudding, jam, jelly, marmalade, glazed fruit, nuts, chocolate, bon-bons and more.

Some samples were pictured with reference to the enterprise’s Specialty Food Department with baskets including ones made of woven twigs as well as straw, while they were Asian vessels, evocative of the exoticism of the time despite entrenched anti-Asian sentiment, including a blue-and-white porcelain jar, a Chinese teapot and a tea caddy comprising a hand-painted chest, tied with gold and silver ribbon “and topped with a spray of candy flowers.” The De Luxe Basket was overloaded with candy, fruit, jam and jelly, nuts and fruit cake, but had the surprise of “sugar oranges of a deep, golden hue, tightly wrapped in a glistening glassine, and intertwined with dark green foliage” and it was that year’s “one outstanding gift basket offering.”

The bon bons and chocolate basket was “a dainty little gift” with the arrangement “especially colorful and attractive with each piece “in a crimped case and tucked away just so” and the color scheme “carefully thought out even to the satin bow and candy spray on the handle.” The Elite was “justly famous” for its fruit cake because of “its purity, delicious taste, and keeping qualities” and sizes ranged from one to five pounds in “beautifully decorated metal containers,” with it noted that the cake “improves with age.” Similarly, chocolate boxes were from one to five pounds and in “boxes of various and beautiful designs” with candies including cream fondants in crisp chocolate coatings, dipped marshmallows, caramels, nougats and others.

The Specialty Food Department offered stuffed olives, cucumber rings, olive oil, chutney, mushrooms grilled in butter, artichoke hearts in oil, capers, anchovies, antipasto, foie gras, caviar, escargot, cherries, Raffetto pears, stuffed oranges and cordials like vermouth, creme de menthe, grenadine and framboise. Yet, it was added that there were “a thousand delicacies specially imported . . . from Europe,” while there were many American products “not to be found at ordinary grocery stores.” Patrons were invited to contact the manger of the department “to help you solve your Christmas dinner problem.”

Beyond edibles, however, there were imported perfumes new to the 1924 offerings with a wide variety of products on display in the Favor Department. It was added that “the exquisite beauty of package and crystal bottle, [and] the fascinating, subtle and alluring fragrance of the perfume itself must surely kindle kindly thoughts toward the giver.” In all, there was no shortage of “unusual gifts,” as the cover, showing a rosy-cheeked, rotund St. Nick standing in front of a gaily decorated Christmas tree, with rapped presents spread out beneath his outstretched and gloved hand, indicated.

The Elite continued independent operation until the end of the decade. Early in 1930, a deal was struck to sell the main store and branches to Pig ‘n Whistle, which in December 1908 opened a confectionery as well as offered tea, soda and light lunches at its first location near City Hall on Broadway south of 2nd Street. Under restaurateur Sidney Hoedemaker, an aggressive expansion was undertaken in the late 1920s including a Hollywood location a short distance east of The Elite’s shop that opened in 1927, closed after about a quarter century and then was reopened in the early 2000s. It was shuttered in spring 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the building has been gutted for a cantina to great consternation among preservationists.

Helen Mosher died in 1943 at age 80, a half-dozen years after her brother and two years following the death of Conn. Cafeterias and confectioneries have largely gone by the wayside, though the name of the former persists with school lunchrooms and See’s Candies shops are still with us after just over a century (the first store opened in Los Angeles in 1921) of existence and will sell a huge number of treats for the holiday season.

As for our “Evolution of Christmas” and “Selling the Holiday in Los Angeles” posts, check back soon for another installment dealing with 1920s pamphlets with gift-giving ideas for greater Los Angeles area shoppers.

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