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Donation Illuminates Southland's History

In an electrifying gift, Edison turns over its massive photographic archive of the region's transformation to the Huntington Library.

October 06, 2006|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

Photographers for pioneering electric companies documented a sweeping visual history of Southern California, from its 19th century farm days to the suburban sprawl after World War II.

When giant hydroelectric dams were built on formerly wild rivers, they shot. When cocktail lounges added air conditioning in formerly sweltering digs, they shot. When floods and earthquakes ravaged the region, they shot.

The result was an enormous collection for what eventually became the Southern California Edison firm: 40,000 photographic prints, 35,000 negatives and 450 reels of motion picture film. And on Thursday, officials announced that the parent company, Edison International, has donated that archive to the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, where it will be digitized and made available for historians and researchers.

Jennifer Watts, the library's curator of photographs, described the gift as extremely important to chronicling "the evolution of Southern California."

Although many photos show early generators and transmission lines, they also offer interesting and usually unintended insights into economic and cultural life. In the fashions and streetscapes from the 1880s to the 1950s, "you see a lost era," she said.

For example, a picture of a 1934 fatal car crash into a utility pole in Compton shows the surrounding neighborhood as quietly rural. In promotional scenes from a 1917 cooking school class in Pomona, women in fancy hats watch demonstrations of early electric appliances. Long-vanished poultry farms in Pomona and Fontana are depicted in the 1930s with what were then new-fangled electric chick warmers and egg coolers.

A photo of a sign, thought to be from the 1890s, illustrates how unfamiliar most people were with electric lights. "Do Not Attempt to Light With a Match," it warned, urging people to use the turnkey instead. "The Use of Electricity for Lighting Is No Way Harmful to Health, Nor Does It Affect the Soundness of Sleep."

One of the most engaging images displays a group of nattily dressed young men atop bicycles on 4th Street in downtown Los Angeles in 1912. In the days before lightbulbs could be easily screwed in, their job was to deliver and install free replacement bulbs to homes and businesses.

Edison had stored the collection in various locations over the years but recently became more concerned about proper preservation of delicate items. Discussions began with the Huntington, which has a well-respected curatorial staff, as well as chilled and low-humidity storage vaults.

"We are delighted to be able to give these to the Huntington, to have their professional skills and to make it available to researchers and scholars," said John Bryson, chairman and chief executive of the Rosemead-based Edison International. Bryson noted that the library has other large archives about California history. "It's a natural fit," he said.

Plus, Bryson said that parts of the collection and Edison's history are directly linked to Henry Huntington, the library's founder. Huntington was the backer of the vastly ambitious Big Creek hydroelectric plant, which came online in the Sierra in 1913 to help power his Pacific Electric Railway in Los Angeles. Through subsequent mergers, Edison took over Big Creek and expanded it.

Appraisers have estimated that the collection would sell for about $800,000, not including its future intellectual worth and reproduction rights, according to Edison officials. In addition, the utility is giving about $200,000 for preservation and digitizing. That will take up to two years.

The photos are housed on shelves at the Huntington, in cardboard boxes cataloged by such subjects as steam plants, accidents and sports. Ross Landry, a retired Edison curator who is under contract to help with the project, is painstakingly comparing the prints and negatives for overlaps. He said it is difficult sometimes not to get lost in a past Southern California that was, for example, well served by a network of electric trolleys.

Greg Hise, associate professor of urban history at USC's School of Policy, Planning and Development, has seen some of the collection and predicted that it will be invaluable for him and other researchers.

For example, he said he was drawn to 1916 pictures of power poles in downtown Los Angeles and what they captured of nearby rail yards, workers and housing.

"As is often the case, you think you are collecting one thing and it turns out to be useful in ways you never imagined," he said of the Edison photographers.

The photos of early 20th century utility workers dangling off cliffs and over rivers will remind people of how much fortitude and courage it took to build the region's first dams and power grids, he added. "Today, we flip on a switch and expect the lights to come on, our computers to work," Hise said. "We forget what lies behind that."

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