by Paul R. Spitzzeri
One of the most common Christmas gifts, especially for women, has to be jewelry and this newest installment of “The Evolution of Christmas” posts with the subheading of “Selling the Holiday in Los Angeles” highlights, from the Museum’s collection, the December 1925 catalog of Montgomery Brothers, which proudly publicized itself as “Los Angeles’ oldest jeweler” dating back to 1881.
The enterprise’s principal owner, James A. Montgomery (1850-1936), certainly saw an enormous amount of change during this many years in the Angel City, though his business, which lasted for a half-century and appears to have enjoyed financial success through the decades, even with depressions in 1893 and 1907, for example, suffered significant financial losses when the Great Depression hit in late 1929. More on that below, however, as we trace some of the history of the firm and focus on the catalog.
Montgomery hailed from Brantford, Ontario, Canada, southwest of Toronto, west of Buffalo and east of Detroit, where his father was a tailor. By the time he was 20, he was in the jewelry business, but, as many of the practitioners did, focused on “practical jewelry,” often meaning watchmaking and repair. In 1880, he headed to the American West and spent a rough half-year in Nevada and contemplated heading back home “but was led by destiny to Los Angeles,” arriving the Angel City in February 1881.
Purportedly, he had all of $3.50 to his name and his necessarily modest start was with a simple setup in which Montgomery began by fixing watches at a small shop at 80 South Spring Street and moved, within several years, to offering “Diamonds, Gold and Silver Watches, Fine Gold Jewelry, ‘Seth Thomas’ Clocks, Gold Spectacles and Eye-Glasses, and best quality Rolled Gold Plate Jewelry.” By 1886, he had some employees, including “first-class watchmakers” at a store 22 South Spring.
A 1921 biographical sketch recorded that “he knew discouragement and even hunger” but he persevered and built him a stock for a small enterprise that that looks to have greatly benefited from the great boom that largely took place during the mayoral administration of William H. Workman, in 1887 and 1888. During that period, Montgomery was joined by his younger brother, George, who seems to have been more of the public face of the business, which was renamed Montgomery Brothers, as he was often communicated with the press, went on business trips and got involved with civic organizations. By the teens, as George began to have health problems that necessitated an early retirement, his sons, Chester and Munro, joined the business.
When the rechristened store, at 18 North Spring, was opened at the end of February 1888, the Los Angeles Herald reported on the event, it began its account with:
Over five years ago there came to this city a young man with a great deal less than $1,000 [a big difference from the $3.50 generally cited later] in his pocket, but with a determination to make a success in life. His worldly goods could be summed up thus: A neat business set of clothes, and a fine set of jewelers’ tools.
From his humble beginnings, it was added, “he immediately gained a splendid reputation” and “step by step he rose, until he found himself in a well stocked store of his own.” With George’s arrival, the brothers ordered the equipment necessary for the expanded enterprise and, after some freighting delays, were finally able to open the store, which “contains everything calculated to please the most extravagant and fastidious tastes, and also the tastes of those whose purse is not very deep.”
A front window display included diamonds worth north of $40,000 and another two grand worth of fine jewelry. A well-appointed reception parlor and other furnished and decorated elements highlighted “the rich appearance of the store.” Watches, lockets, sleeve buttons, breast pins, solid silver and silver plate tableware, a separate repair area at the back and other components were covered. It was reported that, all opening day, “a constant stream of visitors” were present “and many were the exclamations of praise at the fine display.”
The Los Angeles Express also provided extensive commentary on the grand opening, calling it “a day long to be remembered in Los Angeles, by lovers of bright jewels and sparkling stones” and adding “this is by far the most elegantly appointed, conveniently arranged, and tastefully fitted store of its kind in the city, as well as one of the best on this coast.” The piece reviewed James’ rise in position, adding that his skills were “second to none” and, with his hiring of “a large number of skilled workman,” he needed George to assist as a partner.
The paper reported that there were “many expressions of admiration and congratulations by the thousands of their friends and visitors who poured in on them in a constant stream all day.” It went on to say that “the fixtures . . . are probably equal in finish to those of any store west of the Mississippi river, and which for convenience are perfection itself [sic].” Mahogany finished cherry wood cases with “water polish” plate glass, silver cases with vertical sash doors, rosewood counter cases and the dramatic show window with the small fortune’s worth of diamonds were featured and it was noted that a special police officer was hired for “his ever-vigilant eye on the ‘sparkling beauties.'”
Over the years, the firm was known for having the contract to maintain the landmark County Courthouse clock, providing badges and pins for the La Fiesta de Los Angeles festival, trophies and cups for all manner of sporting events. In 1898, the enterprise was incorporated with James, George, and the latter’s wife Alice joined by the well-known lawyer Bradner W. Lee and Herbert B. Eakins, a mining engineer who probably was involved with the Montgomery Brothers in their various interests in prospecting at such places as Johannesburg and Panamint in the deserts of eastern California.
In early 1899, Montgomery Brothers moved again, this time to the new Douglas Building, built by Thomas D. Stimson at Spring and Third streets. In its account of the opening, during which there were no sales, the Los Angeles Record of 21 January observed that
Like a vivid realization of a fanciful dream from the “Arabian Nights” was the scene presented this afternoon at the new store of Montgomery Bros. The scintillating diamonds, glittering silver, iridescent cut glass, glowing gold and rare ceramics made a brilliant scene, the like of which was never before seen in this city.
Arend’s Orchestra performed for visitors and the paper asserted that “there is no finer jewelry store on the Pacific coast,” including a “diamond room,” enclosed by plate glass and which allowed shoppers to sit comfortably at their leisure to sample the fine pieces. In addition to the usual stock, there was also “a cabinet of the finest imported art China of all makes.” A novelty was “a compartment inclosed in French plate, and is devoted wholly to a magnificent stock of cut glass.” To better show off these offerings, there were 50 electric lights “and the effect, when all aglow, is beyond description.”
Aside from the many showcases with watches, clocks, tableware, toilet articles, opera glasses, gold and silver headed canes and umbrellas, purses and more, there was a gallery solely for clocks, under which was a basement storage area for inventory and massive safes for storing valuables after the store closed. Also located there were the manufacturing areas, while the watchmakers and those doing repair were to be at the front of the establishment, though the orchestra was situated there on opening day.
In early 1906, the Douglas Building, which still stands and is, not surprisingly, comprised of upstairs lofts with first-floor retail space, was significantly damaged by a fire and Montgomery Brothers suffered a major $10,000 loss. Later that year, the enterprise signed a lease for the first floor of the two-story Grant Building at Broadway and Fourth Street (which is also extant), but it did not relocate until September 1908.
In its coverage, the Los Angeles Times of the 1st noted that “wealth and fashion went in numbers” to the opening, “feasting their eyes on half a million dollars’ worth” of stock “in richness and numbers outrivaling Aladdin’s dream.” It was stated that this was the eighth location of the business in twenty-seven years and James was asked to explain the success of the enterprise. His simple assessment was that the business kept pace with the growth of Los Angeles. Notably, he “smilingly recalled that his original capital was $3.67, with which he opened a watch repair shop.”
The fittings, furnishings, décor, equipment and other aspects of the new store, the interior design of which was handled by architect Alfred F. Rosenheim, were said to cost in excess of $125,000 and it was denoted “a veritable business palace, decorated richly in French plate, gold capitals, marble pillars, rosewood store fittings” and much else. All of this was determined to be “offering unmistakable evidence that the higher-class American shoppers require palatial surroundings,” this reflecting the dramatic transformation of the United States as a world economic power—although there was also plenty of evidence of a continuing market wealth gap between the well-to-do and the working class and urban poor.
The owners “hope to make their handsome store one of the local business landmarks” including nearly thirty electric chandeliers, said to be “the first lights of the kind in town.” Also emphasized was the women’s restroom “handsomely fitted in rich red mahogany, Turkish rugs, and costly bric-a-brac. The cut glass showroom “is pleasing in its graceful long curves” while the ceiling was in art glass and the pillars of mahogany and the inventory was “dazzling beauty and richness” and “is emphasized by the vivid illumination.”
Silver and gold departments flanked four large horseshoe-sized areas with mahogany cases for all kinds of precious stones, while there was a private viewing room, as well. The silver section also included a separate space for silverware, clocks and other items. The watch department had a selection of 1,200 timepieces along with gold chains and more offerings and there were departments for imported pieces, Asian jewelry, exclusive gold chains, leather items and more.
It was added that James and George were joined in business by the latter’s son Chester, and there were floral displays of congratulations by such firms as Nordlinger and Son, which predated Montgomery Brothers by about a decade, Gorham and Company, O.L. Wuerker and others in the trade as well as friends and admirers. As in 1899, Arend’s ensemble was there to entertain the throngs of visitors.
After fifteen years at the Grant Building, there was one last move, this time to Hope and 7th streets and the newly finished Union Oil Building. Olive Gray of the Times of 18 October 1923 covered the opening and she repeated Montgomery’s 1908 statement by observing with no small amount of purple prose that,
Established in 1881, Montgomery’s has kept pace with the city’s growth and now further attests faith in the city’s future of Los Angeles by constructing the new and luxurious store. Stately and impressive is the facade, where columns of gold and black marble frame solid bronze supports of elaborate yet chaste design. Stately and dignified is the impression as one enters the main sales salon, where tall columns of Travatine [Travertine] marble, of a creamy texture, veined in gold and warmed to a rosy tint, soar to a vaulted ceiling . . .
As was noted in the past, Gray described the use of black velvet in the cases to showcase the pieces on offer, be they silver, glass or “bric-a-brac,” while cases were up-to-date in design including bronze electric lighting fixtures, the use of which “show the natural colors of articles exhibited.” Considered unique was the use, in the watch repair department, of wheeled trays and shelving, which could be easily rolled into vaults, likened to those at banks.
There was also a stationery department utilizing natural light and the expansive manufacturing area included the firm’s original designs and “many lovely examples of the jeweler’s art were on exhibition” during the previous day’s opening reception. As in 1908, there were many floral pieces sent to the store and “lent a festive and congratulatory air to the spacious salons,” while “many were the good wishes expressed by the throngs of friends visiting the store.
Notably, the firm was headed by James with his nephews Chester and Munro in assistance, George having retired several years before; but, mysteriously, after divorcing his wife prior to 1922, he seems to have vanished with no record found of his whereabouts after that date excepting a reference to his having been deceased some time in the next fifteen years.
As for the catalog, its front cover cover shows a man holding his wife’s right hand on which is a watch and rings, while Christmas gifts, including tableware, candlesticks, and others are displayed. The second page shows a young woman displaying her watch and rings next to a massive holiday wreath, while the text includes the statement that
There is no gift of finer sentiment—no Christmas token of happier portent—than the gift that lasts down through the coming years. You will discover in the holiday collections of this store fine jewels of exquisite character as well as quaint novelties of most thoughtful purpose—a treasure trove of fascinating gift-lore.
Pages show solid silver spoons, forks and knives; watches; diamond pieces; pearls; cuff links key cases; seal rings; charms; pins; leather and silver cases; compacts; and more. For the crown jewel of precious stones, the item proclaimed, “The Christmas diamond! What happy memories of glorious holidays it carries down the coming years! No gift more joyously expresses the true spirit of Christmas than these exquisite pieces . . .”
A page at the end is for “The Christmas Dinner Table” offering a kitchenette menu for those residing in apartments and an “Old Homestead Menu” for readers residing in a more substantial setting where fresh food was more likely to be found. A well-arranged table was shown in a photo, while text related that “as much a part of Christmas as the holly itself is the silverware with which the dinner table is appointed! Happily appropriate, therefore, is gift-silver, which shown in fine individual pieces and complete sets at this store.”
The back cover is titled “Where Gift Ideas Abound!” and it was noted that there were gifts “from quaint places” throughout the world “for our colorful December displays.” Shoppers were encouraged to “bring your Christmas list today to this resourceful store” and to “look confidently to this store as ‘The Gift Shop’ of this community—a never failing source of new inspiration in the solution of every Christmas gift problem! With so many unusual items and those “that reflect thoughtful consideration and genuine regard,” it was again suggested that visitors bring their lists early in December to “Gift Headquarters.”
There were the occasional daring burglaries, including one in 1924 during which a thief or thieves cut through a glass door and made off with $15,000 in diamond rings, while leaving behind another twenty grand watches, and this was followed by another heist in which watches and necklaces were nabbed. In 1926, Montgomery Brothers and other jewelers were indicted under the federal Sherman Antitrust Act for creating an Eighteen Karat Club to boycott jewelry jobbers which sold to discount retail vendors in an effort to maintain certain price levels. The following year, all the defendants pled guilt and paid fines with the firm coughing up $2,000, while James ponied up half that amount (Chester’s case was dismissed.)
Though the elder Montgomery lived in a house near Westlake (MacArthur) Park that was declared to be worth $75,000 in the 1930 census, the onset of the Great Depression exposed economic problems. In August 1930, when James celebrated his 80th birthday, the Times ran a feature on his recollections of coming to Los Angeles nearly a half-century before, in which he stated “I never saw such beauty before in my life . . . I said to myself: ‘Here is where I want to live,’ and I have never been sorry that I came here” and it was added that he still possessed a steady hand for intricate watch repair.
Yet, for successive Christmas sales, in 1929 and 1930, the firm offered its only two sales, with the first year offering 25% discounts, but the second going as far as half-off. With spending on luxury items no doubt plummeting, a “drastic reduction sale” was held in spring 1931 and, that May, James denied that the store was going out of business, telling Olive Gray of the Times that the idea was to simply raise capital as “everyone knows that times have been hard and still are far from normal.”
The auction sale in May 1931 did not relieve the fiscal difficulties of the firm and bankruptcy was declared early the following year. Yet, the store reopened in August 1932 at a new 7th Street location and it managed to stay in business for nearly three years. In July 1935, however, another auction was held and almost exactly a year later, James died several weeks shy of his 86th birthday. By any standard, his run of close to 55 years was exceptional, though it ended in straitened circumstances.