The American Italy: Southern California
By J.W. Hanson, A.M., D.D.
W.B. Conkey Company (Chicago, 1896)
The Boom of the 1880s, fueled by the railroads competing for passengers, promotional efforts by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, and books and magazine articles waxing poetic about the Land of Sunshine, drew hordes of visitors and new residents. One book, Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona, even created a tourist industry all its own.
While his book fits the genre of booster literature, Hanson assures readers that “Not a word has been written in the interest of any locality or from any local prejudice.” He has written for “the average stranger, whether tourist, invalid, pleasure seeker, or intending settler” providing them with all the information they might need.
Hanson was certainly not in the same category as the colorful Benjamin C. Truman who wrote a similar book twenty years earlier, titled Semi-Tropical California. Among Truman’s many endeavors was chief of the literary bureau of the Southern Pacific Company where he was responsible for producing the company’s promotional brochures. Both men served in the Civil War, Hanson as a chaplain and Truman as a war correspondent. Hanson was a Universalist minister based in Chicago known for his writings on history and religion, including his own edited version of the New Testament. Truman is remembered as a journalist and too much more to cover in this essay.
Modern readers might find the prose of both books a bit florid, but they yield nuggets of history (often not in textbooks) that help us visualize what this heavily populated area of today was like just over one hundred years ago.
Hanson’s book evolved from notes on photographs he had collected. In late nineteenth century Los Angeles, photographic images sold from photographers’ studios or curio shops were popular with residents and tourists alike and also with magazine publishers, property owners, and merchants. Hanson was especially drawn to views attesting to the area’s superlative climate and fertility like one of a rose bush that covered an entire house or tomato plants so huge one needed to climb a ladder to pick all the ripe fruit.
Not surprisingly, his prose often lapses into religious allusions like this description of the route to Los Angeles: “ … at all approaches, except by sea, the paradise is guarded, as by an angel with a drawn sword. The horrors of the desert interpose to ward off intruders. Heat, thirst, desolation assail those who would enter the modern Eden.” He follows that with a 40-page chapter on the climate and 30 pages on soil products (the soil may look like a gravel bed, but “its fertility is astonishing”), to confirm Southern California’s status as Eden. Other chapters discuss the flora, the mountains, and the seaside. In the section on Los Angeles County, we are told the correct pronunciation is “Lows Ahnheles—popularly corrupted into Laws Angelis.”
As perfect as Southern California might sound, Hansen acknowledges that it has shortcomings which he discusses in a chapter called “Outs.” The most prominent “out” is “the difference in temperature between noon and night, and sunshine and shade. The invalid and the delicate must guard against this change.” But he concludes “this lowering of the temperature more than compensates for its inconvenience, for it gives a night that no land can surpass for sleep.” Other “outs” include earthquakes, of course, but the “tornadoes, cyclones and blizzards in all the states east of the Rockies, work more mischief in one season than all the earthquakes of Southern California have ever wrought.” Another out is the absence of lakes and rivers: “an acknowledged defect in the scenery here … the rivers during a large part of the year are upside down—-that is, sunk in the sand.” And in those days the California flea was “ famous—away from California … After four years I have never encountered the ‘wicked flea.’”
Hanson was based in Chicago where he would have connected with his publisher, W.B. Conkey Co. He and his wife purchased a home in Pasadena and spent many winters here, which is how he became so knowledgeable about the area. Sadly, he was on his way to Pasadena in 1901 for his yearly visit when he died of a heart attack on the train in Flagstaff.
American Italy is one of the sobriquets writers and promoters used to describe Southern California. According to the author, others were “The Land of Sunshine,” The Land of the Sundown Sea” “Poppy Land,” “The New Italy,” “The Better Italy,” “our Italy….” But “In fact, no name has yet been suggested that fully describes the fascinating realm that weaves a spell of enchantment around all comers from all lands and climes.” The sobriquets for Los Angeles have changed over the years, but the city still weaves its own spell of enchantment for some, if not all, comers.