Fruits, Flowers & Floats: Los Angeles Festivals Of The 1890s

By Victoria Dailey

vd--2Before Hollywood, and Disneyland; before skyscrapers and strip malls; before clogged freeways and air pollution, Los Angeles was a city unlike any other in the country. Festooned with flowers the year round and with orange groves and vineyards in the middle of town, Los Angeles enjoyed hundreds of sunny days per year and boasted vast acres in which nearly anything could grow. It was a city where prosperity was just around every corner, and where civic pride insured a tidy metropolis of beautiful homes with carefully tended gardens filled with roses, calla lilies, geraniums, heliotrope, jasmine, and tuberose, not to mention the ubiquitous orange tree, whose blossoms filled the air with delicious perfume. Add to this a new awareness of her Spanish past, a small population eager to grow, and a barrage of advertising, and you have the makings of the city that became the dream town of the country, the pot of gold at the end of the American rainbow. Los Angeles, the city and county of fruits and flowers, was advertised through a myriad of advertising brochures, photographs, and pinback buttons. Los Angeles became the destination of choice for traveling Americans and for those searching for a new place to settle down. All of this was spurred on by the completion of a direct route to Los Angeles from the east, when, on November 9, 1885, the first train pulled into town from Chicago.

Suddenly, Eastern visitors could arrive in the Southland in just a few days and sample her enticements. Those ill with tuberculosis found a climate in which to recover. Those in perfect health found a place to increase their wealth. Southern California was just a train ride away–and the railroads capitalized on this new access. They, more than anything else, were responsible for the sudden growth and rapid development of the area, resulting in the “Boom of the Eighties.” As one observer recalled: “People were intoxicated with enthusiasm over the prospects of Los Angeles and the county. It is impossible to describe the excitement that reigned during this period.” [J. R. Henderson, “New Los Angeles,” in The Californian Illustrated Magazine, Vol. II, No. 5, October, 1892, p. 650]

The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe began a rate war with the Southern Pacific. Passenger fares from Chicago to L.A. dropped from $125 to $25; for a short time, the fare fell to $5; and for one extraordinary day, the fare was $1. More than 200,000 visitors arrived in southern California in 1887, the peak year of the boom. Real estate prices skyrocketed as dozens of new towns sprang up with thousands of available home sites. In 1880, the population of Los Angeles was 11,000; by 1890, it had quintupled to 50,000. By 1900 it doubled, to 102,000. Advertising worked. Theodore Van Dyke recounted, in his classic book on the boom of the eighties, Millionaires of a Day, 1890: “The summer of 1886 was coming, and with it an increasing number of strangers. People who a year before had gone back [east] with contempt for everything in California, led by some strange impulse, were now every day returning and buying property at two or three times what they could have bought it for the year before…The success of some of these paper town-sites was wonderful. Thousands of acres bought [before the boom] for thirty, twenty, and even ten dollars an acre, and, without water for irrigation…were sold in lots at from one thousand to ten thousand dollars an acre. And this was done in dozens of places…”

Like any other boom, it promised more than it could deliver and the boom became a bust by late 1888. The city suffered a setback and real estate prices receded to pre-boom levels. No longer could inferior lots be sold to unsuspecting visitors at immense prices. The city recovered its senses and continued to grow, but not at the dizzying rate of the boom years. The bust did, however, become a public relations disaster when eastern newspapers exaggerated its effects, and the throngs of tourists who had descended during the boom failed to materialize during the bust years.

The Angel City’s wings were clipped. Many hotel operators were worried, the city began to miss its tourist cash and so the city began to take inventory of herself. Improvements were needed to attract visitors once again to the new paradise on the Pacific. The city built a new sewer system. Streets, previously unpaved, underwent the transformation to blacktop. Construction of an electric cable car began in 1890. Businessmen joined together to form the Chamber of Commerce in 1888, and by 1894, that body had its own building, where it began exerting a wide influence, holding exhibitions of local products and issuing a multitude of brochures. The Chamber of Commerce was responsible for bringing thousands of settlers and tourists back to Southern California, and during 1888-91, it issued eight separate brochures with a total press run of 365,000 copies, boasting: “If it is true that advertising pays, then the Chamber of Commerce has certainly done well by the section which it represents. It is generally admitted that no section of the United States is more thoroughly and intelligently advertised than Los Angeles and Southern California.”

Advertising alone was not enough; it had to be supported by actual events. California’s greatest agricultural product, citrus fruit, became the focus of promoters and planners. Oranges were the largest crop, and navel oranges the prize of all. Navels had first been grown in Riverside by Mrs. Eliza Tibbets in the 1870s, and the first commercial shipment was made in 1880, when 15 train cars loaded with 750,00 navels were sent east. By 1891, 1446 carloads were required to ship 72 million oranges to outside markets–a dramatic hundred-fold increase in a decade.

To celebrate this incredible new business, local municipalities held Citrus Fairs from 1890 to 1895. The first fair, in Los Angeles, featured dainty exhibits of oranges and lemons grown around the Southland. Riverside, then the leading orange-growing district, made a sumptuous display at this first fair with orange pyramids of varying sizes.

Of the second fair, held in March, 1891 in Los Angeles, one writer said: “In no part of the world was [there] ever such a display of fruit…The symbolic and artistic design, the elaboration of details, and the delicate construction work point directly to inspiration…At this great exhibition of the citrus fruits of Southern California, fifty thousand oranges, lemons and limes were used in constructing the exhibits made by the horticulturists of fifteen different localities…” [J. R. Henderson, “New Los Angeles,” in The Californian Illustrated Magazine, Vol. II, No. 5, October, 1892, p. 645.) One of the most fanciful exhibits was the entry from San Diego–it featured a Spanish galleon sailing by the bluffs of Point Loma, the entire scene made exclusively from oranges. This fair of 1891 was subsequently sent to Chicago where it was renamed, for better marketing purposes, “The Orange Carnival,” and 120,000 people saw the bounties of Southern California on the shores of Lake Michigan, inducing many a Midwesterner to make the pilgrimage to the Pacific.

Citrus fairs became very popular, and major exhibits of fruit and other agricultural products were held not only in Los Angeles, but also around the country, including the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. California and her counties were big exhibitors in Chicago, and great care was taken in the massive and inventive displays. Among the featured exhibits were the Liberty Bell, complete with crack, made of oranges; and a medieval knight mounted on his gallant steed made from an unlikely source, prunes. Similar displays of California fruit appeared at the San Francisco Midwinter Fair of 1894; the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, 1895; the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha, 1898; and the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, 1901. California went national. Americans loved fairs, and California was the star of many of them.

Citrus fairs grew more elaborate each year and attracted more and more people. A visitor attempted to describe the effects of a typical citrus festival: “A citrus fair cannot be described in words, and, what is still more unfortunate, cannot be successfully pictured. The chief beauty of the display lies in the great masses of rich color in which the eye revels…But in the photograph the oranges look like so many cannon balls–all the soft effects of color are lost and there remains not even a remote suggestion of the beauty of the original.” (O[wen]. C[apelle]. “A Famous Festival” in Land of Sunshine, March, 1895, p.73.)

By the turn of the century, there were dozens of such fairs, including the Imperial Valley Cantaloupe Festival, the Redondo Beach Carnation Festival, the Blythe and El Centro Cotton Festival, the Oxnard Beet Festival, the Van Nuys Poppy Festival, Escondido Grape Festival and the Mecca Date Festival (still held every February). But Southern California did not consist of oranges and fruit alone–another major horticultural product existed in abundance–the varied and luxuriant flora, which became the centerpiece of other and even more elaborate festivals.

In 1889 the Chamber of Commerce entertained the idea of a festival based on New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, but nothing happened until 1893, when Max Meyberg, a pioneer merchant, dreamed up The Fiesta de Los Angeles in order to bring back tourists and settlers and to take advantage of the many visitors expected on the West Coast at the San Francisco 1894 Midwinter Fair. He imagined a huge celebration and ball for the spring of 1894, and his vision paid off. The Fiesta de Los Angeles opened on April 10 with 7,000 visitors and a parade down Spring Street. As a local newspaper reported: “No such gigantic social undertaking was ever attempted in this city before.” It took place over four days, featuring a scenic and historical parade, which included such themed floats as The Landing of Cabrillo, The Old Missions, Early Mining Days, and two whimsical floats of more recent vintage: a Boom Float and a Busted-Boom Float. There was also a local industries parade and a children’s parade; the final day, April 13, featured a Grand Masked Ball. The Fiesta reflected Los Angeles’ growing civic pride, and it included entries from all community groups. In fact, this debut fiesta was the first occasion in Southern California in which the Chinese were invited to take part in a public celebration. They contributed an elegant float, and the Chinese entries soon became among the most popular at the Fiestas.

Because of its spectacular success, the Fiesta was held again in 1895, and was planned on a larger scale. A brochure proclaimed: “In April when La Fiesta is held, Winter has not yet thrown off its somber covering in many parts of the East, while the mountains and valleys of Southern California are clothed with all the daintiness of a fair bride. Her snow-capped mountain peaks look down upon luxuriant orange groves and smiling valleys. Turn, oh expectant subject, to the land of the Queen of the Angels in April, and enjoy her short, but merry reign. The gates of the city will be open to you!”

The Fiesta continued through the 1890s, but was canceled during the Spanish-American War. It was revived in 1901 when it was rechristened La Fiesta de las Flores. Los Angeles, and the Fiesta, had grown large enough and important enough for a state visit: President and Mrs. William McKinley were the guests of honor in 1901. Unforeseen and unimagined by Los Angeles fiesta goers that spring was that McKinley would die later that year at another fair. In September, while standing in a receiving line at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, McKinley was shot by an anarchist and he died eight days later.

Another official visit took place when President Theodore Roosevelt was the guest of honor at the 1903 Fiesta. Many festivities were planned around Roosevelt’s visit, and the menu for the banquet held in his honor at the Westminster Hotel included the following local delicacies: California Oyster Cocktail, San Fernando Mission Olives, Catalina Sand Dabs, La Crescenta Sherry, Sliced Cahuenga Tomatoes, Montalvo Potato Croquettes, Verdugo String Beans, La Jolla Shrimp Salad, Glendale Strawberries, and Sierra Cheese.

The next year, Arrowhead Magazine, a travel journal, reported that: “Flower festivals of Los Angeles have become famous the world over. The Fiesta of 1907 will eclipse all former events of the kind…Strangers to the state, who witness these festivals, wonder whence come all these flowers. There seems to be not a rose missing from the gardens. The calla lily hedges shine white with their multitudes of pure chalices. The banks glow with undespoiled masses of scarlet geraniums, and the great clustered bunches of heliotrope have lost none of their purple. It remains for the visitor to be driven about over the city and the surrounding country to comprehend that with the millions of acres of bloom in Southern California a dozen Fiestas could not exhaust nor perceptibly lessen the supply of flowers in this kingdom of bloom.” Los Angeles in April was delirious with the perfume and magical effect of flowers.

Parades and floats became more elaborate. In 1903, electric lights were first used on floats, and parades began to have themes, some of which included Nursery Rhymes, Folk Tales, Irrigation and, in 1912, the rather lofty theme, the Evolution of Aerial Navigation. This spectacular Fiesta of 1912, which took place over eight days, featured sixteen fanciful floats on the theme of flying and included entries in the shapes of a kite, comet, bee, eagle, firefly, stork, grasshopper, butterfly, flying fish, castle in the air, rocket and monoplane. Los Angeles had the distinction of having held the first international aviation meet in 1910 and Angelenos were enamored of all things aerial. This Fiesta also included a parade of twenty-one floats representing the Missions of California, each float a miniature reproduction in flowers of one of the Spanish missions built from San Diego to San Rafael. There was also a Grand Floral Parade, with florally bedecked automobiles, floats and carriages, and, just to dispel any thoughts that the planners had somehow skimped, there was a Pageant of the Universality of Man, with floats dedicated to the following themes: Earth, North America, South America, Britannica, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia, followed by a flotilla of floral entries representing the cities of the West. The last day of this Fiesta featured Carnival Day, which offered a special experience of the Old West: a rodeo with cowboys and cowgirls. As the official brochure gushed: “Tie up your back hair, cinch down your sombrero, wear your wooden shoes; she’s going to be hot. Hair-raising entry, nerve-disturbing fusillades, cow punchers galore in their element, cowgirls to the forefront, bucking horses in action, roping until you get dizzy, big band, all the regular trimmin’s and something going on every minute.” Who could resist Los Angeles?

The Fiestas continued up to World War I, but the city had grown so large, and her fame and reputation had spread so vastly, especially through the movies, that after the war, the Fiesta seemed like a quaint relic of the past and was discontinued. In 1931, the city held a Fiesta during the city’s 150th anniversary celebration, but the Depression prevented its permanent revival. And Pasadena, home to the Rose Parade, had eclipsed Los Angeles as the premier floral festival of Southern California.

Pasadena, Los Angeles’ neighbor to the northeast, had become home to the Rose Parade and Tournament of Roses mainly through the efforts of one settler, Charles Frederick Holder. Born in 1851 in Massachusetts, Holder had worked as a curator at New York’s American Museum of Natural History before moving to Pasadena in 1885, just in time for the boom. A passionate naturalist throughout his life and author of several books, he became known in Pasadena as a businessman, philanthropist, conservationist and sportsman. In 1886, he trained a pack of greyhounds to chase local fox, jackrabbits and coyotes– English-style hunting had come to Pasadena–and Holder helped found the exclusive Valley Hunt Club in 1888.

The following year, the Club held what it called a “beautiful fete” to show off their hounds and to celebrate the ripening of the oranges in the many local groves. The resulting event, originally called the Orange Parade, became the Pasadena Festival of Roses in 1890, now known as the Rose Parade. Following the Parade, young men competed in a variety of races, tugs of war, and jousts, which was named The Tournament of Roses by Holder and which evolved into the Rose Bowl. Holder was devoted to Pasadena, and described it in 1892 as follows: “The musical intonation of a distant mission bell, a soft balmy air, the odor of the orange blossom, a wealth of flowers, a crazy-quilt of color, the rustle of banana leaves as of gentle rain, the melody of birds on a midwinter day; the gleam of snow on distant mountains–this is Pasadena, the crown of the San Gabriel Valley…” (The Californian, Vol. II, p. 418)

Holder’s parade became so popular so quickly that in 1894, the city had to build viewing stands along the parade route, and that year marked the first floats entered by organizations, among them, the Valley Hunt Club and the Hotel Raymond. The Rose Parade had its first Rose Queen in 1905, and the popular January event spread the fame of Southern California’s mild winter climate to an amazed world. Unlike today, crowds then admired the use of one type of flower to decorate an entire float, car or carriage, and the massing of only calla lilies, roses, violets, pampas grass, nasturtiums, orange blossoms, wisteria or geraniums on an entry was especially prized.

Los Angeles and Pasadena and were great agricultural and horticultural centers that attracted visitors the year round. They came to Southern California because it was unlike any other part of the country. While it was undoubtedly American, Southern California also had a touch of the exotic. Something subtle had changed in the minds and hearts of her many Yankee settlers. No longer rooted to an Anglo-Saxon past, Southern Californians reveled in their newly found Spanish and Mexican heritage. The local missions that were once looked upon as useless ruins from a Catholic past underwent restoration by a generation of Protestant Yankees who began to prize them as a link to the imagined nobility and chivalry of a former time. Spanish and Mexican cooking became popular, as settlers, who formerly had never heard of a chili, began to eat enchiladas and tamales as a matter of course.

Whereas New England could take historic pride in Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims, Southern California suddenly began to appreciate their ranchos, caballeros and missions–and no other metropolitan area could brag about blooming gardens in the middle of winter. Unlike other cities that developed over centuries, Los Angeles developed over a few decades–it had few of the signposts common to other urban centers–and it barely had a past.

Desperately in need of history, Los Angeles appropriated one. In dreaming up the Fiesta de Los Angeles, Angelenos lifted motifs from the past that had ended less than fifty years before. The era of the Missions and Ranchos had lasted from only 1769 to 1848, but it provided a foundation on which to build both a cultural myth and a regional reality. This willingness to absorb diverse influences, to be open to new perceptions and to interpret history flexibly became hallmarks of Southern California culture (and ultimately, Hollywood/movie culture). The fairs and parades were the first fanciful expressions of Southern California’s new culture of prosperity, optimism, beauty and whimsy. Although most of the visible signs of that era have been erased, paved over or forgotten, they are still visible on January 1–and that spirit of openness has never truly vanished.