A Victorian Tourist's Photo Album Of Los Angeles, Circa 1894
What did Victorian Los Angeles look like through the eyes of tourists discovering it for the first time?
A photo album from a trip to Los Angeles in the spring of 1894 shows us just that. The album, which was acquired and digitized by the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum in City of Industry, contains a few dozen cabinet card-sized photographs descriptions written in white ink. There are no names or identifying information, just the nascent city as they saw it, a handful of years after the completion of the transcontinental railroad lines had opened the floodgates to the west.
The fledgling city was sold into being through real estate and railroad ads, which promised a paradise of health, beauty, and endless potential. After a local Board of Trade was founded in 1883, "page after page of advertising and descriptive matter was sent to eastern magazines, which were read all the world," as Joseph Netz explained in a 1915 Southern California Historical Society article. "This advertising and literature told in glowing colors the salubrity of our glorious climate, climate, climate, the variety of our productions, the fertility of our soil and the immense profits
to be made from the cultivation of Southern California semi-tropical fruits. Of course there were golden opportunities in the virgin soil of Southern California, but the promotors went wild and boosted conditions above the normal and helped to bring on a boom," he explained.
"The fields of green and the homes of flowers and fruits, the balmy air, the brilliant sunshine pouring down its invigorating warmth upon the body and vitalizing the blood, suggested to people the value of the land as a home, and many of them remained, while others returned as tourists the following year or became permanent reisdents of Los Angeles as soon as they could dispose of their eastern holdings," Netz continued.
In 1884, a novel written by an author named Helen Hunt Jackson became a runaway national sensation. Described as "the first novel about Southern California," Ramona was intended as a critique of the treatment of Native Americans under California's Franciscan Missions and Mexican rancho system, but the book also offered a sentimentalized, romantic view of California's Spanish past that would come to be defining. Rather than sparking indignation, "the novel inspired a myth that has indelibly marked the California landscape," as one literary historian explained.
"Instead of writing their congressmen, readers dreamed of sheep shearing and three-day fiestas. And then they booked train tickets west to see it for themselves," reports the L.A. Times. The Ramona myth was written and it soon painted the region in golden light, remaining "one of the essential elements by which Southern California identified itself" into the 1930s, according to historian Kevin Starr. Sites associated, both "mythically and factually," with California's Spanish and Mexican pasts became tourist attractions.
So, what was the city like in 1894, a year after the Bradbury Building opened downtown and five years before the first car would take to its streets? First, let's backtrack for a minute. In the decade prior, the "boom of the Eighties" had brought hordes of new people to Los Angeles to live and work, and tourism—which had been extremely limited before the mid-1880s—suddenly became an industry of its own. The city's population exploded during those ten years, soaring from 11,183 in 1880 to 50,395 in 1890. During 1887, the peak year of the boom, there were 120,000 visitors to Los Angeles.