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Monomania L.A.: David Boulé and the California Orange

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Through a series of short films and articles, Monomania L.A. profiles five L.A. as Subject collectors who have turned a monomaniacal obsession with a particular aspect of Southern California history into a public resource. These collectors have documented disparate subjects -- the California orange, sci-fi reading circles, political graphics, a Mexican rancho, African American photographers--but their stories share one thing in common: a passion for history that has enriched our understanding of Southern California's past.

It all started with a souvenir from the past -- an Arcadian vision of a manicured citrus orchard set against snow-capped mountains, printed in color on a penny postcard, and on sale at a paper ephemera show in San Diego. Thirty-five years, numerous flea markets, and countless eBay searches later, David Boulé has assembled what's perhaps the largest single collection of materials related to the production and promotion of California oranges.

Though the focus of his collection is narrow, the subject is anything but trivial. With apologies to the palm tree, the orange is arguably the most important plant in Southern California history. It was certainly the region's signature crop for nearly a century, from the 1870s through the mid-20th century. A mighty citrus belt stretched from the Oxnard Plain in the west to Redlands in the east, where the Orange Empire reigned. Los Angeles, once a lowly cowtown, became "The Big Orange." To the south, an endless expanse of Valencia orange groves gave truth to Orange County's name.

The orange's rise had social, ecological, and economic consequences. It made a wealthy landowning elite even richer and attracted several waves of immigrant laborers to the region -- first from China, then Japan, and finally Mexico. It transformed hundreds of thousands of acres once devoted to animal husbandry or bonanza farming. And it created an economic dynamo that would power the region for decades.

"It is hard to overemphasize how big the California orange industry was," Boulé says. "In 1895 Riverside, California, from growing oranges, had the highest-per capita income in America. And as recently as 1920 the number two revenue source in the state of California, only behind oil, was oranges."

As a marketing executive, Boulé was particularly attuned to how savvy advertising campaigns from the Sunkist citrus-growing cooperative resounded with booster efforts to sell Southern California as a place of tourism and residence. Soon, a collection that began with a souvenir postcard grew into a rich record of how oranges helped cultivate California's image.

"It was destiny that the two would come together in some way," he says, "and the orange became a symbol of California's promise and potential."

Like several other collectors we profiled in Monomania L.A., Boulé seems compelled to collect by a deep psychological drive -- he describes it as "the collector's gene." That's how a single postcard became 600.

"When I had two, then I wanted to find more, and when I found more I wanted to have all of them," he says.

His compulsion, incidentally, extends beyond the orange. In his home office, not far from his boxes of citrus-themed ephemera, Boulé has arrayed a dozen or so jars filled with vintage bakelite drawer pulls, carefully sorted by color.

At first blush, drawer pulls may not hold much scholarly interest -- but then again, maybe they do, as artifacts of materials science or domestic design and architecture. Sometimes, only collectors like Boule can discern the true value of a mass of everyday objects.

"One of the things a monomania collector can do," Boulé said, "is to burrow so deep and with such focus as to find connections that are perhaps beyond the time or interest of a formally trained academic."

Indeed, Boulé has parlayed his hobby into a role as one of the foremost experts on the California orange industry. He now regularly lectures on the subject and recently published his first book, "The Orange and the Dream of California" (Angel City Press, 2014), which draws liberally from his collection.

With that richly illustrated volume now gracing coffee tables and bookshelves, Boulé has more or less moved on from collecting orange-related ephemera in favor of new projects. He speaks of finding an institutional home for his materials, where they'll serve future generations of scholars.

But he can't suppress his "collector's gene" completely. Every now and then he hears the siren call of eBay. "I still slide occasionally back," he admitted, "and type in 'California orange orchard' and see what pops up."

Courtesy of the David Boulé Collection.
Courtesy of the David Boulé Collection.
Courtesy of the David Boulé Collection.
Courtesy of the David Boulé Collection.
Courtesy of the David Boulé Collection.
Courtesy of the David Boulé Collection.
Courtesy of the David Boulé Collection.
Courtesy of the David Boulé Collection.
Courtesy of the David Boulé Collection.
Courtesy of the David Boulé Collection.
Courtesy of the David Boulé Collection.
Courtesy of the David Boulé Collection.


This project was made possible with support from Cal Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit http://www.calhum.org.

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