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Spirit of California Christmas Past : 1920s Celebration Re-Created at Homestead Museum

December 20, 1985|WILLIAM S. MURPHY

Entering the Spanish colonial home once occupied by Walter P. Temple Sr. is like stepping back into a Christmas more than half a century ago.

The house, on six acres known as the Workman and Temple Homestead, was acquired by the City of Industry in 1981 and restored as a cultural landmark. Now a museum, the 26-room mansion has been decorated as it would have been when occupied at Christmas during the 1920s. The Temple family used Victorian ornaments that had been passed down by their ancestors who were pioneer settlers in Los Angeles.

The site was originally acquired in 1841 by William Workman, who came West with a party of settlers while California was still under Mexican rule. He built a house of adobe brick, one of the eight structures now on the property. In 1923, Walter P. Temple, the grandson of William and Nicholasa Workman, moved his family into the stately mansion he had built. The exterior with its tiled roof and garden patio centered by a large fountain is similar in design to the Franciscan chain of missions constructed in California during the 18th Century. The interior is furnished with fine wood carvings. There are stained glass windows, intricate iron work and colorful ceramic tiles, but it is the living room that captures one's immediate attention in this holiday season. The main focus is the Christmas tree.

Carolyn Wagner, the administrator of the Homestead, described the decorations: "The Christmas tree tradition is an old German custom that was popularized in the 19th Century. During the Victorian period of the 1880s that persisted through the 1920s, trees were laden with gifts for the family and friends. They were ornamented with paper boxes and cones containing sugar plums and favorite treats. Wax tapers illuminated the tree and numerous decorations including flags, molded glass and other toy ornaments."

She paused to wind up a Victrola and reached into its lower cabinet for a record. "This provided music for the evening. There's a radio in the other corner of the room, an ornate console, but records were just as popular as they are today."

A Few Final Touches

Wagner added a few final trimmings to the tree, an array of numerous handmade paper ornaments, popcorn garlands and gingerbread men. "It's an interesting story of how the first Christmas lights came into use," she continued. "It was a telephone employee in England named Ralph Morris who conceived the idea after a candle set fire to his tree one year. Using a number of tiny bulbs that were designed to light up telephone switchboards, he strung them together and put them on the tree. By the 1920s, they were being manufactured commercially."

For Los Angeles, the 1920s was a momentous decade. The veterans who returned from France in 1918 following the Armistice ending World War I were soon to discover that the country had gone dry. Prohibition was inaugurated June 30, 1919. The drought it caused was short-lived. The neighborhood speakeasy and one's affable bootlegger insured a ready supply of spirits. Thousands of silver pocket flasks were sold.

A building boom gained momentum in 1923. Two years earlier, the local All Year Club, a booster organization for the city, raised a $1-million budget to advertise Southern California's year-around warm climate. It worked. Thousands migrated from the frigid East. By 1923, Los Angeles had a population of 900,000. There were new hotels to house the visitors--the Ambassador built in 1920, and the Biltmore in 1923.

In 1920, people were reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's "This Side of Paradise," and Sinclair Lewis' "Main Street." This was the decade that marked the advent of the radio. In 1924, the Crosley Corp. was advertising six models ranging from a one tube set for $14.50 to a deluxe model that sold for $100. One listened to the set with ear phones, but Atwater Kent and Radiola also had loudspeakers available for their radios.

Los Angeles had developed one of the finest mass transit systems in the nation. Yellow streetcars criss-crossed every section of the city, and the Big Red Cars carried thousands of passengers to the suburbs. The automobile began to cause traffic jams downtown. Among the popular makes were Cadillacs, Chryslers, Buicks, Maxwells, Franklins, and the classic Pierce Arrow which sold for less than $3,000.

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