Picture this: You arrive in Los Angeles on a shiny, newfangled train that never blows smoke. As you look out the window, you pass by vistas of vineyards and orange and lemon trees ringed by snowcapped mountains and dotted with Spanish adobes and Victorian mansions. When you step off the train, the sun shines, and the rose-tinged air is a perfect 72 degrees, even though it is the dead of winter. Within days, you have found a high-paying job, a charming home with your own ever-blooming garden, and weekends of sanitized outdoor adventure.
This was the dream that lured thousands of people to Los Angeles more than 100 years ago. It was a dream carefully crafted and packaged and sold to citizens all over America and beyond. This multipronged, decades-long promotion helped create the Los Angeles we love, but it also solidified the myths of Los Angeles, whose sunny shadows hang over us to this very day.
The “booster era” of Los Angeles spanned roughly 40 years, from 1885 to 1925. Over these pivotal decades, rough-hewn and optimistic pioneering city leaders worked with creative writers, real estate barons, and artists to bring new settlers and new businesses to their dusty Wild West town. In creating a narrative to sell Los Angeles, these boosters often rewrote the city’s history and present situation to suit their idealized, European-American values.
As boosters told it, Southern California began as a romanticized Spanish utopia. It was currently a paradise of beautiful weather, cheap land, and plentiful jobs. Its future was that of a thriving metropolis, equal to and set to one day surpass San Francisco or New York. There was also a good dose of “thinly veiled racialism, all put to the service of boosterism and oligarchy,” Mike Davis explains in his book City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles.
These pillars of self-promotion were all pushed on the American public by the city’s chamber of commerce, which operated like an ad agency on steroids.
“Chambers of commerce are common,” Peter Clark MacFarland wrote in Collier’s magazine in 1915. “This one is uncommon. Possibly it is the most efficient of its kind in the world… it built the city.”
Beginning in the late 1880s, the chamber, under the leadership of Charles Willard and later Frank Wiggins, distributed millions of pamphlets, booklets, and postcards extolling LA’s numerous advantages.
According to Tom Zimmerman, author of the fascinating Paradise Promoted: The Booster Campaign that Created Los Angeles, in the one-year period from February 1898 to February 1899, the chamber distributed 127,000 pieces of pro-Los Angeles literature in Omaha, Nebraska, alone.
“It is generally admitted that Los Angeles is the best-advertised city in Southern California, the best-advertised section in the Union,” chamber of commerce leader Charles Willard wrote in 1894.
In an age before television or the internet, the chamber of commerce pioneered an aggressive national advertising campaign, opening storefronts in Atlantic City, Chicago, and D.C., and sending speakers and exhibitions touting LA’s virtues on tours across the country. According to Zimmerman:
One of Wiggins’ revolutionary ideas was to design prefabricated exhibitions that could be reassembled onsite at state fairs, trade expositions and human gathering points of all kinds. Once the exhibits were put together, they were filled out with spokespeople hired by the chamber, thousands of pieces of free literature, and the agricultural and industrial products of Southern California.
More refined but no less explicit in its mission were the journals and magazines that presented Los Angeles and Southern California as an exotic cultural and ecological wonderland. The most famous and successful of these was Land of Sunshine, a periodical started by Willard in 1894 and taken over in 1895 by Charles Lummis, Southwestern mythmaker, historian, and all-around artist.
Featuring essays, poems and artwork, Land of Sunshine was boosterism at its most subtle and sophisticated. Some of the time “letters were solicited ‘about why Southern California is the best place to live the in the world,’” Emily Abel writes in Suffering in the Land of Sunshine. “The masthead noted that the editors would answer ‘free of charge’ requests for information from ‘tourists, intending settlers, and health seekers.’”
Los Angeles supporters also gave their city countless nicknames, some catchy and some a bit of a stretch. These included, according to Zimmerman: the “Land of Eternal Spring,” “The Home of Contented Labor,” “Where Nature Helps Industry Most,” “The Metropolis of the Southwest,” “The Largest City in the Western Americas,” “The Progressive City of the Twentieth Century,” “The Wonder City of the United States,” “Climatic Capital of the World,” “Our Italy,” “The New Beulah Land,” and the home of “Sunkist Skies of Glory.”
One of the earliest Southern California myths that was perpetuated by boosters was the “days of the dons,” a past where Los Angeles was a European (Spanish) utopia. This idealized, totally inaccurate historical revision was disseminated worldwide through Ramona, Helen Hunt Jackson’s best-selling 1884 novel chronicling the days of the missions and ranchos in Southern California.
Tourists and potential settlers visited the fictional Ramona’s “home” and went to The Mission Play, the long-running outdoor drama at Mission San Gabriel, bankrolled by Harrison Gray Otis in 1912. In Paradise Promoted, Zimmerman explains:
Mythmaking was a major component of the promotional campaign; a favorite was the grandeur of the pre-American period the boosters called the “Days of the Dons.” This fantasy ignored the Mexican period of control and harked back to a romanticized era when cultured Spaniards-daring horsemen, extravagantly courteous and well dressed-were the lords of Southern California.
They were presented as operating prosperous ranchos, helped by their beautiful wives and daughters… the Franciscans were their cheerful, dedicated helpers… the Native Americans were in the background, very quietly doing the menial work, having their souls saved and learning the benefits of European civilization.
The culmination of this promotion came in the 1920s and ’30s, with Christine Sterling’s recreation of Olvera Street. At a “New York advertising convention in the early 1930s, the mission aura of ‘history and romance’ was rated as an even more important attraction in selling Southern California than weather or movie-industry glamour,” according to Zimmerman.
It was easy to sell the image of Southern California as a Mediterranean paradise due to the semitropical, temperate climate. Thousands of images were printed on postcards and in ads, portraying the lush foliage and varying scenery of Southern California.
“Blooming orange groves with snow-capped mountains in the distance was the perfect shorthand for the booster’s view of Southern California,” Zimmerman writes. In a promotional booklet published by LA’s Hollenbeck Hotel in 1893, writer George Wharton James proclaimed that “the glorious combination of winter and summer beauties in immediate proximity appropriately designated the Southland as ‘Our Switzerland-Italy.’”
In popular Victorian travelogues like Our Italy (1891), which was quoted liberally by Los Angeles boosters, essayists like Charles Dudley Warner extolled the virtues of Southern California’s ideal climate:
Here is our Mediterranean! Here is our Italy! It is a Mediterranean without marshes and without malaria… It is a Mediterranean with more equitable climate, warmer winters and cooler summers…
The time is not distant when this corner of the United States will produce in abundance, and year after year without failure, all the fruits and nuts which for a thousand years the civilized world of Europe has looked to the Mediterranean to supply.
The mild, dry climate was also promoted as a cure-all for the infirm and unhealthy. Sanitariums for sufferers of tuberculosis and other ailments sprung up all across the Southland. This line of promotion was particularly pushed by the chamber of commerce; both Wiggins and Willard had come to Southern California to regain their health.
According to Abel, an early issue of Land of Sunshine featured an editorial entitled “Living on Climate,” which claimed “there are some thirty or forty thousand people in Southern California who were doomed to death in the eastern climate, and are allowed under these balmy skies to continue their lives to old age.”
LA’s plentiful citrus crop was also used to promote the image of Los Angeles as an abundant, fertile land of healthy, exotic food available to everyone. At the famous Chicago’s World’s Fair in 1893, Los Angeles boosters went all out.
“For that occasion,” Abel writes, “the chamber erected a giant globe, eight feet in diameter, consisting of 6,280 oranges and a thirty-five-foot high tower of 14,000 oranges. Another 4,500 oranges were placed in the shape of the ‘old liberty bell,’ thus underlying the link between the fruit and the national destiny.”
The exhibit also featured a giant statue of an elephant covered by 15,000 California walnuts. The hit of the exhibit, the elephant was displayed in the Chamber’s LA exhibit hall for the next 30 years.
In 1893, the Southern California Fruit Growers Exchange formed. By 1908 it had changed its name to Sunkist and began a major media blitz in the Midwest, eventually launching the famous slogan “Oranges for Health, California for Wealth.” So successful was the prolonged citrus assault that one new settler in Los Angeles County, a nun, made a “mental note that there were no orange groves in sight, and chuckled remembering the tales she heard about leaning out the window to pick your own breakfast.”
This supposed abundance available in Los Angeles was extended to land and jobs, both promoted as plentiful and accessible to anyone who was willing to become an Angeleno. In 1901, a promotional piece by the chamber of commerce exclaimed:
Many Americans who have become weary of the constant struggle for existence in mercantile pursuits, a struggle which is grown more onerous from year to year, cherish a longing for a small farm, in some pleasant section of the country, where under sunny skies, they may support their families in comfort, and end their days in peace, without being disturbed by the shadow of the sheriff or the poorhouse.
There is no section of the United States in which this ideal may be so well realized as in Los Angeles County.
But many early boosters were not targeting all Americans. “We wish more population of the right sort… but we are particular,” Willard wrote in an early volume of Land of Sunshine. “We are anxious to have our friends come; but not everybody.”
Another Land of Sunshine editorial, bluntly called “The Right Kind of People,” stated “we are not compelled, as in most eastern cities, to set aside 20 to 30 percent as speaking little or no English and caring nothing for American institutions… only the best class of immigration thus far has been attracted to this section, and the situation is likely to continue the same in the future.”
Because of this racist ideology, most early boosters aimed their promotions at middle-class and wealthy white people in the Midwest and on the East Coast.
“I am here afforded the delights and advantages of the best society imaginable. Southern California has been peopled with the very best of Eastern wealth, culture, education, and exquisite refinement. There are here the highest exponents of art, science, philosophy and belles-lettres,” a settler named W.C. Patterson wrote in an essay titled “Why Am I Here?”
The flourishing of Southern California, with its booming industries and blooming crops, was often linked to the flourishing of the white race.
“Pictures of robustly healthy women graced the covers of numerous booster publications,” Abel writes. “The literature also was replete with photographs of hardy white babies, testifying to the benefits of combining the best genes with an ideal environment. Entitled ‘the pick of the crop,’ a Land of Sunshine article displayed a plump white infant surrounded by baskets overflowing with fruits and vegetables.”
As Michael Dawson notes in Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Metropolitan Los Angeles, in the world of the Los Angeles booster:
Southern California was a healthy and temperate climate waiting for the establishment of a broad-based and preeminent Anglo-Saxon culture, a culture that supported the illusion of a class-free society and the dream of an economic livelihood free from the increasingly dangerous and bureaucratic life of urban centers in the eastern United States.
Southern California was perceived as simultaneously exotic and familiar, a vacationland of comfort and ease located securely within the borders of the United States.
Despite this overt racism, many influential members of the black press also promoted Los Angeles as a place of new beginnings and relative freedom. Compared to the Jim Crow South and overcrowded North, there were more opportunities for black and brown people than in most parts of the country.
Jefferson Edmonds, editor of The Liberator, declared in 1902 that “California is the greatest state for the Negro.” A few years later, he wrote that “the hospitable white people” treated blacks kindly and paid them good wages. In 1913, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in The Crisis, the widely read and influential magazine of the N.A.A.C.P.:
Los Angeles was wonderful. The air was scented with orange blossoms and beautiful homes lay low crouching on the earth as though they loved its scents and flowers.
Nowhere in the United States is the Negro so well and beautifully housed, nor the average efficiency and intelligence in the colored population so high. Here is an aggressive, hopeful group-with some wealth, large industrial opportunity and a buoyant spirit.
By the 1920s, LA boosters’ tireless promotion of their city had become a national joke. In 1925, a cartoon, portraying eager Angelenos standing at the gate of heaven, read:
St. Peter: Do you seek entrance here?
Californian: Quite the reverse, brother! We’ve come to see if we can sell you on Los Angeles!
But Angelenos were more than happy to take a gentle ribbing. By the boom time of the ’20s, it was clear their campaign had worked—and then some. The small, violent backwater of the post-Civil War era had become a thriving, modern metropolis of asphalt and orange trees. Ads and promotional materials featured graphs and charts touting the city’s exponential population growth compared to other American cities. They could not help but gloat: The LA they dreamed of had arrived.
Editor: Jenna Chandler