Who is Olive Percival?


This is the first of a 3-part series in which @LAHistory explores the life and achievements of Olive Percival, forgotten character of the Arroyo Seco. Read Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

Olive Percival hangs lanterns in her garden | Photo from The Children's Garden Book
Olive Percival hangs lanterns in her garden | Photo from The Children's Garden Book

Who is Olive Percival? An author? A gardener? A toy maker? An advocate for suffrage, animals and trees? A collector of Japanese art? An insurance clerk? A photographer? A bibliophile? A designer of paper dolls? A curator of bookplates? She was all of these and more. UCLA librarian Lawrence Clark Powell likened her to a modern-day Emily Dickinson, while writer Hildegard Flanner positioned her as "a prominent figure in Southern California." Assembling a list of Percival's attributes runs the risk of omitting key details about this multifaceted personality. Yet it is a risk worth taking to ensure her place among the respected artists of the Arroyo.

Olive Percival's home was a magnet for fellow artists, writers, bibliophiles, and gardeners in early 20th-century Los Angeles. Over the years since her 1945 death, her legacy has continued to charm, enthrall, enchant, and delight new audiences of admirers. Percival did not thirst for the spotlight as her neighbor Charles Lummis, and is often overlooked in accounts of the Arroyo. A 1984 article was even titled, "Olive Percival: Forgotten Woman of the Arroyo."

Although she shunned the spotlight, Percival longed for fortune as a writer. She amassed a treasure trove of short stories, articles, poems, L.A. Times editorials, books, and unpublished manuscripts. While she never wrote the great American novel, she left behind something more valuable--her diaries. The 2,000 pages (transcribed) of entries are so vivid, we can readily picture her world of Los Angeles during the first half of the twentieth century. Librarian Powell believes the diaries were not only a self-portrait of an artist and a collector, but also a social and cultural document of Southern California history. Here's a couple of excerpts from the diary:

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Percival was 18 when she arrived in Los Angeles in 1887. After first working at Hamburger's Department Store, she became the first female underwriter to be hired by an insurance company. She began working for fire insurance agents McLellan and Golsh in 1891, and became a Sub-Agency Clerk with the Home Insurance Company in 1895. While successful in the insurance field (from which she retired after a 38-year career), it was never her passion:

Percival actively campaigned for suffrage, attending events and submitting editorials to the Los Angeles Times. In a 1909 editorial she declared, "...we women are not all moral jellyfishes!" In another dated 1910 she argued, "If this really is to be a government 'for the people, of the people and by the people' then we, who form at least fifty per cent of the populace, certainly have a right to the ballot." During a trip to New York she complained about a suffrage meeting in Madison Square Garden. "Think of paying $2.00 a seat to have someone talk equal suffrage to you! It's free in California."

Percival's house, known as the 'Down-hyl Claim,' in the Arroyo | Photo from The Children's Garden Book
Percival's house, known as the 'Down-hyl Claim,' in the Arroyo | Photo from The Children's Garden Book

As was the fashion of her time, Percival was enamored of the Japanese aesthetic. Her interest was fueled by a friend who taught in Japan and sent Japanese friends to America with letters of introduction for Percival. As early as 1899 the Los Angeles Times reported that she hosted a young Japanese author, Adachi Kinnosuke. She began collecting Japanese prints in 1900, frequenting the many Japanese and Chinese antique shops near her office, befriending the merchants and adding not only prints but porcelains, scroll paintings, and sword guards to her collections.

With many Japanese friends, it's not surprising that she protested the California Alien Land Law of 1913, which discriminated against the Japanese. She wrote to the newspapers and lobbied among her well-connected friends. But not all of her fellow members of the Friday Morning Club agreed with her. When she was accused of being un-American by supporting the Japanese, she stood her ground by keeping her membership in the Japan Club in London and New York, while joining the Society of Mayflower Descendants, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the American Society of Colonial Families to prove that patriotism was not synonymous with racism.

Olive's hats on posts for garden party. | Photo courtesy Ella Strong Denison Library, Scripps College
Olive's hats on posts for garden party. | Photo courtesy Ella Strong Denison Library, Scripps College

With her many social commitments--a dinner with Jack London, a Spanish class with the second Mrs. Lummis, an exhibit at the studio of sculptor Alexander Calder (father to artist Alexander Calder, Jr.)--she felt most at peace in her garden. She tended her garden with a delicate and whimsical hand, ensuring it brought joy to both human and animal. Among the 250 varieties of plants, shrubs and vines in her garden, she favored her roses above the rest. After she died, a cherry red rose was patented the "Olive Percival Rose" and planted in the White House Rose Garden (though, the rose never met with commercial success).

Her love of natural beauty extended beyond her own garden as she wrote a manuscript for a children's guide to plotting their own gardens (published posthumously in 2005 by the Huntington Library). In her 1906 editorial "Our Lack of Trees," Percival wondered, "We have achieved societies for the protection of children and animals and birds and old missions! Is it not possible to establish before it is too late, a society for the protection of the few trees left to us here in Los Angeles?"

Children's Gardening book, authored by Percival
Children's Gardening book, authored by Percival

It would be in her garden where Percival suffered a stroke. She was not discovered until the next day, and died several months later in a Pasadena rest home. Her ashes were buried on a Forest Lawn hillside, next to Alla Nazimova (an actress Percival admired and also creator of the Garden of Allah residences). In a posthumous tribute, Lawrence Clark Powell wrote, "In spite of an income limited to her clerk's earnings and from the occasional sale of articles, this woman, whose name was Olive Percival, collected beautiful things so assiduously that, after her death, it took an appraiser two weeks to inventory the contents of her cottage...What a pity that she lacked the wealth and the leisure of a Huntington or a Morgan."

Her items are now archived at institutions across Southern California: UCLA Library, Ella Strong Denison Library at Scripps College, the Williams Andrews Clark Library, and the Huntington Library.

Olive Percival's Los Angeles was one of culture and beauty as well as drudgery, as her diary is full of laments about the daily monotony of working as a downtown insurance clerk. She commuted from her home in the Arroyo on the Red Car and made enough to support herself and her mother. She built her own home, which she named "the Down-hyl Claim" (which still stands in Highland Park). In spite of it all, Olive lived a far richer life than the average turn-of-the century Los Angeles working girl.

Ingrid Johnson, a librarian and a current expert on Olive Percival, organized her collection at Scripps' Denison Library. In an email correspondence, she recounted a label that Percival wrote and attached to one tiny black doll hat (that she had made), adorned by a single white feather:

Ingrid continues, "Eighty-seven years later, the presence of this simple feather, combined with the carefully written note in Olive Percival's hand, evokes a vivid image of a woman seeking peace and beauty even amongst the bustling workaday world of downtown Los Angeles."

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the series, coming next week.

Top photo: Young Olive at the hearth in the Down-hyl Claim. Photo courtesy Ella Strong Denison Library, Scripps College.



Special thanks to Librarian Judy Harvey Sahak and the staff of the Ella Strong Denison Library at Scripps College in Claremont, CA, as they enthusiastically shared their wonderful Olive Percival archives with us. A thank you to the Huntington Library's Reader Services Department for their always amiable and expeditious response to our requests. We are grateful to Ingrid Johnson for recording and sharing information about Olive Percival's life and collections.

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