Getting Schooled With Helen M. Pierce’s “The Graduate School Days” Scrapbook, Manual Arts High School, Los Angeles, 1917

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Throughout greater Los Angeles, high schools are celebrating the achievements of their graduating seniors, with many going on to college, the workforce and the military, among other endeavors. This evening, attending a graduate awards ceremony at Bassett High, close to the Homestead, it was great to see so many young people being recognized for their hard work with scholarships and awards. In this latest entry under the “Getting Schooled” banner of posts, we are featuring a 1917 scrapbook put together by Manual Arts High School graduate Helen M. Pierce, who happened to have an interesting family background.

The Pierce clan included parents James (1822-1904), a farmer in New York state, and Frances Clark (1831-1910), who had 11 children, including two daughters (one who died as an infant) and nine sons. Between 1880 and 1894, all of the family migrated to Los Angeles, where many of the children became prominent figures in a variety of vocations and community activities. The first to come to this region was the eldest surviving child, Edward (1851-1919), who, after study at a normal school of teacher education and in the law, taught in New York and New Jersey. A professor with a doctorate in pedagogy, he came west and settled in Sierra Madre in 1880 and took up raising fruit, while he also taught for a short time at the Santa Anita School. For six years, until 1889, he was superintendent of schools in Pasadena and followed this as superintendent of the normal schools for teacher education at Chico (1889-1893) and Los Angeles (1893-1904).

Los Angeles Times, 24 May 1885.

Robert (1853-1913) migrated to Stockton in 1876, where he opened a store and followed this by establishing a mercantile house at Sacramento. In 1884, he headed south to Los Angeles and founded a furniture store that operated at the north side of the Plaza for about two decades before moving to Spring and 2nd streets. Herbert (1855-1942) came west in 1879 and joined Robert at the state capital where he first was an interior decorator for railroad cars. He came to the Angel City in 1886 and was, for many years, an instructor of art at the state school for troubled boys, later the Fred C. Nelles School, in Whittier.

Charles (1858-1925) was also trained as a teacher in his home state and taught in New Jersey when Edward was there before earning a degree in 1888 from Colgate University. This was followed by his studying at the Hamilton Theological Seminary at that institution, which work was interrupted when he was ordained a Baptist minister. After pastorates in New York and Massachusetts, he came to Los Angeles in 1899 to lead the Memorial Baptist Church, where he served for a dozen years, during which time, he received his divinity doctorate from Colgate in 1909.

Times, 19 October 1902.

Next was William, but we’ll skip over him for the moment. Marcus (1862-1935) came to Los Angeles in 1884 and worked with Robert and William in the Pierce Brothers Stable on 1st Street adjacent to the Nadeau Block, with a branch at East Los Angeles (Lincoln Heights) where the whole family lived at various times. He joined Robert in the furniture company and remained in partnership for many years, before changing vocations and becoming a chiropractor later in life. Catherine (1864-1947) migrated to the Angel City in 1898 with her husband, Frank, a Congregational minister and their six-year old son Carl, who became a lawyer, historian and cartographer, editing the quarterly publication of the California Historical Society and compiling a multi-volume set, Mapping the Trans-Mississippi West, 1540-1861, that has been prized by historic Western American map aficionados.

Frederick (1866-1928) left New York for California, was with the Oakland city health department for several years and then went to Chicago, where he completed his studies at a veterinary college and then headed for Los Angeles, where, in 1889, he opened the Los Angeles Veterinary Hospital with a partner at Fort (renamed Broadway the next year) and 3rd streets and with branches at East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights. He served a term from 1907-1909 in the state Assembly. The youngest Pierce was Clarence (1871-1953), who came to the Angel City in 1892 and attended the medical college at the University of Southern California, from which he graduated in 1898. The first intern at California Lutheran Hospital, he began working as a doctor and was the surgeon for the Los Angeles Police Department.

Los Angeles Record, 24 July 1902.

William (1859-1939) came to California and joined Robert at Sacramento before running a store in Calaveras County and then migrated to Los Angeles with him in 1884 and were joined by Marcus. William managed the Pierce Brothers stable and was also associated with the furniture store, while he also operated a grain and hay farm on the outskirts of the city on Mission Road in East Los Angeles. In 1898, he was elected to the Los Angeles City Council and served two terms representing the first ward, including East Los Angeles, where he resided with his wife Mary Newton, a native of Connecticut, and their children, son Sterling and daughters Gertrude and Helen.

In 1902, as he was completing his final year of council service, William joined with his brother Fred and three others to form Pierce Brothers and Company, while filed its incorporation papers in July. Under the cheeky headline of “Councilmen Will Bury People,” the Los Angeles Record remarked,

As undertakers members of the city council are experts even when they undertake to rush fancy franchises and salary jobs, so it is not surprising they should branch out, some of them, where their experiences will be valuable.

William, Fred and their partners established what became the first all-service mortuary in the Angel City and which eventually became the second largest such firm in the country, with the name still in use at funeral homes and cemeteries from Santa Paula in Ventura County to Riverside, including Valhalla Memorial Park in North Hollywood, which is where Clarence is interred.

In fact, in 1904, Clarence joined the Pierce Brothers enterprise and served as its treasurer for almost a half-century until his death, while Frank Wheat was secretary for sixteen years. Moreover, as an advocate for education, which ran deep in his family, and having served on the Los Angeles City Board of Education for eight years, two of which as president, he was a prime mover in establishing, in 1947, an agricultural school on former city school land in the San Fernando Valley—it is now Los Angeles Pierce College in Woodland Hills.

The original Pierce Brothers Mortuary was on Flower Street at 8th Street, where the Southern California Gas Company Building was built in 1924 when the mortuary moved to an ornate Spanish Colonial Revival facility in the University Park neighborhood on Washington Boulevard near where interstates 10 and 110 meet. The site is now being redeveloped with multi-family housing, though portions of the old building and chapel, which are a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument, are being retained, despite fire damage and other issues, as part of the complex, dubbed Washington View Apartments.

Fred’s son Mark (1896-1959) took over management of Pierce Brothers in 1925 and oversaw its expansion to 18 mortuaries, while also operating an insurance company, crematorium and Valhalla Memorial Park. A former member of the Los Angeles Police Commission, Mark engineered the sale of the enterprise to a Texas syndicate in 1958, though he retained the chair position at the insurance company until his death shortly afterward.

This leads us to the scrapbook, which was compiled by William’s daughter Helen. It has a faux velvet cover and its contents were arranged by Elizabeth F. Boynton with illustrations by J.T. Armbrust for publishers Jordan and Company of Chicago, which copyrighted the book in 1915 and this was the fifth edition. A poem by Boynton at the beginning reads,

Life is before you

With its victories to win,

Which will make for all ages,

Of all Nations a kin.

Among the sections were class pages with the year, color, flower, motto, yell and pin; the class song; classmates and officers; the faculty; societies and clubs; favorite studies; athletics; amusements; press notices and clippings; commencement, including gifts; the baccalaureate address; and a miscellaneous section for reunions, excursions and holidays to be recorded. Helen did not utilize all of these (likely almost no one did), but there are still many inscriptions, messages from classmates, photos, pasted-down notices, programs, clippings, and others, and much more.

Manual Arts, incidentally, was the third high school in the Angel City, opening in 1910 and following Los Angeles and Los Angeles Polytechnic. As with most schools, because of explosive growth in the city, there were two classes, winter and summer, and Helen was a graduate in the former. While there are a few dozen inscriptions by fellow students, there are only two by faculty members. Helen was the vice-president of the girls portion of the student body and played on the basketball team, while she attended a number of dances her senior year.

The school’s ninth commencement was held at the Manual Arts auditorium on the last day of January 1917 and Helen was one of 126 graduates, of which there were only two Japanese and one Latino student, in the large class to date. When Class Day was held the day prior (Helen inscribed that the year was 1918), she added that “the honor of presenting the class gift was given to me. It was four beautiful chairs and one throne chair.” She was also on the invitation and program committee for the senior party.

One of the names that stood out when reviewing some of the musical event programs was Lawrence Tibbet, a graduate of 1915, who went on, with an extra “T” added accidentally to his last name, to be a prominent baritone opera singer at the Met in New York as well as a recording artist, occasional film actor and, once his career ended, a radio show host. Perhaps because of one of the two Japanese students, a Girls League program in May 1916 included a Japanese Tea Ceremonial.

In the gifts section were congratulatory cards from her uncles Charles and Fred as well as other family and friends and lists of presents from them including a bank account from her father, a necklace from her maternal grandmother, a silver purse from her sister Gertrude, and “my diamond ring from Harry,” this being Harry Van Beaver, whom Helen married at the end of the year. There aren’t a great many photographs, though a couple are featured here, but commencement invitations, notes, ribbons, graduation songs and other items are of note.

After her marriage to Beaver, who worked for Pierce Brothers, Helen followed family tradition and pursued a career in teaching. Presumably, she attended the state normal school, formerly located where the Los Angeles Central Public Library is now, but which moved in 1914 to a westside location, now Los Angeles City College, and later was folded into the University of California campus at Westwood.

Several years into her marriage, Helen divorced Beaver (who went on to form his own mortuary) and married Harry C. Hum, who also was a Pierce Brothers employee and rose to be a vice-president and an official with a state funeral directors and embalmers association until his death in 1950 in a car accident while driving to a meeting of that entity. The couple had a son, Sterling, who lived until 2004 and it may be through his estate that this scrapbook made its way to the dealer who sold it to the Homestead.

The Museum has a few other graduate scrapbooks from the early 20th century in its collection and we’ll certainly look to feature these in future “Getting Schooled” posts at this time of the year in the future. They certainly are a notable window in the life of teenagers, whose stories can be challenging to discover outside of these, school newspapers, and yearbooks, though the collection has some of these latter, as well.

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