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Alta California in the 1790s was the edge of the world. For Spanish officials and missionaries, the coast of California was a forlorn place that bred hypochondria. But it wasn’t strange. It had aspects of home. Spain’s Mediterranean shore and California from San Diego to Santa Barbara are analogous landscapes, first cousins by way of climate.
Los Angeles may have been a cluster of mud brick hovels during the last years of the 18th century, without even a proper church, but it had the same short, warm winters and long, warm summers as Valencia with its palaces and basilicas.
Thirty years later, Americans who drifted into Mexican Los Angeles found the qualities of its environment alien. Richard Henry Dana Jr., arriving in 1835, admired the mildness of the seasons and thought the soil of Southern California could be productive, but he identified an existential risk in the sunny landscape. What if climate was destiny? “In the hands of an enterprising people, what a country this might be! we are ready to say. Yet how long would a people remain so, in such a country?” The children of industrious Americans would succumb inevitably to the indolent climate and be no better than the Californios Dana generally despised.
Thirty years after Dana diagnosed the racial threat in the environment, the region’s boosters re-wrote the nature of Southern California to solve that dilemma.
For Anglo Californians, reconfiguring nature also would resolve the question of ownership. Indigenous and Hispanic claimants belonged to a former nature and they to it, which had made them unprepared to hold their land. A substitute nature, made real with every honeysuckle, peony, dahlia, rose, and camellia planted by a Los Angeles gardener,[i] was now indisputably an Anglo possession. This nature was new, but it drew authenticity from its roots, extending to the days of the Franciscan missionaries, who first transplanted European herbs and flowers in convent gardens.
"Arid" and "tropical," already used to characterize aspects of Southern California, were loaded with unwanted associations. Neither captured the exceptionalism that would make Southern California marketable as a place of renewal.
A new nature also overcame a branding problem. The qualities of atmosphere and landscape that degraded Hispanic Californians had to be re-imagined if Southern California was to become the “sanitarium of the Union” where the traumas of the Civil War might be healed. The climate didn't change, but the adjectives describing it would.
“Arid” and “tropical,” already used to characterize aspects of Southern California, were loaded with unwanted associations. Neither captured the exceptionalism that would make Southern California marketable as a place of renewal. “Arid” was the description of continental America west of the Mississippi – the Great American Desert of the 1830s. “Tropical” was mostly reserved for southern Florida – long considered a soggy wasteland. Making the new nature in which Anglo Californians intended to live required the making of a new language.
Geographers had long ago systematized geometric and astronomical subdivisions of the world. Start at a point, they said, exactly half the distance from the North Pole. Draw an imaginary circle around the globe at that point and call it the equator. Walk away from the equator, degree by degree northward, to the last point where, at noon on the longest day of the year, the sun is still directly overhead. The next step north crosses another imaginary circle, the Tropic of Cancer.
Between the equator and the Tropic of Cancer (and in the southern hemisphere, between the equator and the Tropic of Capricorn) lie the tropics and in them images of intense heat, continual rain, and trackless jungle. In North America, the Tropic of Cancer cuts through central Mexico, at around 23 degrees, 26 minutes north latitude (about the latitude of Mazatlan). Below are the tropics; above is the Northern Temperate Zone.
It had become a convention by the 19th century to divide the temperate zone further, based on climate. The area between the Tropic of Cancer and about 35 degrees north is typically cooler in summer than the tropics and warmer in winter than the rest of temperate zone. The place in between – between jungle and snowfall – is the geographer’s subtropical zone. Los Angeles is about 34 degrees north, just within the subtropics.[ii]
In Southern California’s subtropical embrace, every tropical crop – from bananas to passion fruit – would flourish without the health (and moral) risks of life in the actual tropics.
Developers with rancho land to sell were eager to recast the environment of Southern California as subtropical, implying warmth and lushness but not a steamy jungle. In Southern California’s subtropical embrace, every tropical crop – from bananas to passion fruit – would flourish without the health (and moral) risks of life in the actual tropics. And Anglo Californians would flourish too, in a newly subtropical nature, without the racial risk that troubled Dana.
“California is our own,” wrote Charles Nordhoff in the preface to his 1873 tourist and immigrant guide:
(A)nd it is the first tropical land which our race has thoroughly mastered and made itself at home in. There, and there only, on this planet, the traveler and resident may enjoy the delights of the tropics, without their penalties ; a mild climate, not enervating, but healthful and health-restoring; a wonderfully and variously productive soil, without tropical malaria … strange customs, but neither lawlessness nor semi-barbarism.
Charles Dudley Warner, in Our Italy, contrasted the former nature of Southern California with its subtropical reconfiguring to emphasize the extent to which this new nature, unlike the old one, was uniquely vital:
It is still a wonder that a land in which there was no indigenous product of value, or to which cultivation could give value, should be so hospitable to every sort of tree, shrub, root, grain, and flower that can be brought here from any zone and temperature, and that many of these foreigners to the soil grow here with a vigor and productiveness surpassing those in their native land.
But the term that Warner uses throughout his description of the Southern California isn’t “subtropical.” For boosters like Warner and developers with acreage to sell, “subtropical” probably sounded vaguely academic and the “sub” part suggested something diminished or subordinate. Warner, adopting a new word for a new nature, called Southern California “semi-tropical.”
Today, subtropical and semi-tropical are near synonyms, with only a shade of meaning to differ them. Between 1853[iii] and 1917, the preferred term for nature in Southern California was “semi-tropical,” often clipped to “semi-tropic.” The two “semi-“ adjectives thread through all the booster narratives of the post-Civil War period, bracketed between Benjamin Truman’s Semi-tropical California: its Climate, Healthfulness, Productiveness, and Scenery in 1874 and F. Weber Benton’s Semi-Tropic California: The Garden of the World in 1914.
“Semi-tropical” emphasized the uniqueness of nature in Southern California[iv] and its poise beyond the older categories of “arid,” “tropical” and “temperate.” Semi-tropical was semi-miraculous. “Meat suspended in the air dries up but never rots,” Truman claimed. “The air when inhaled gives to the individual a stimulus and vital force which only an atmosphere so pure can ever communicate.”
"Semi-tropical" emphasized the uniqueness of nature in Southern California and its poise beyond the older categories of "arid," "tropical" and "temperate." Semi-tropical was semi-miraculous.
The climate of Southern California wasn't arid, it was dry. Its warmth didn't breed tropical indolence; it freed men to work productively the year-round.
Truman’s scrapbook of reporting, statistics, and extracts from other booster authors could have been illustrated with some of the hundreds of stereograph views take by Los Angeles photographer Henry T. Payne in the years around 1875. His “Semi-Tropical California Scenery,” shown at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition in 1876, traded on horticultural exoticism – palms, oranges, olive groves, and cacti – but located these “tropical” forms in the everyday-ness of suburban and rural Southern California.
“Semi-tropical” seemed to mean an agave (century plant) in bloom in front of your plain, white, wood-frame house in the San Gabriel Valley. “This vast region of country,” wrote James DeLong in his 1877 guidebook, “which was considered a few years ago a desert … is now made to bloom as the rose.” Roses already bloomed in the gardens of Chicago and Boston. What was “semi-tropical” about Los Angeles was a novel juxtaposition. “Semi-tropical” meant that cacti and roses shared the same garden.
Into “semi-tropical” could be packed the marvel that was Southern California, which all booster authors regretted they could not otherwise describe. They could not put into more words the delightful, reviving, and profitable nature of Southern California. Several tried “semi-tropic,” a hazier synonym for “semi-tropical” with the advantage, like the nonsense names of modern pharmaceuticals, that “semi-tropic” could mean anything you wanted it to mean.
“Semi-tropic” was attached to a real estate development in San Bernardino in the 1880s. It was the name of a Spiritualist camp near Elysian Park (and the name today of a bar café nearby). It’s the name of a school district in Kern County and a water district and a co-op cotton gin.
What Anglo Californians wanted in the last decades of the 19th century was the new nature that they had evoked from a presumed desert. Semi-tropic Southern California became F. Weber Benton’s “Garden of the World” because immigrant transplants – human and horticultural – had made it so. Southern California was miraculous only because Anglo Californians possessed the miracle through the medium of a new language to describe what they had raised in foreign soil.
More about how nature was imagined in 19th-century Southern California
- James Kessenides’ essay “The Tropical Turn” (at Common-Place) provides additional summaries of 19th century guidebooks that illustrate how “sub-tropical” defined nature in Southern California.
- Richard Henry Dana, Jr. Two Years Before the Mast (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911). Dana’s worry about the racial future comes on page 216.
- Benjamin Cummings Truman. Semi-tropical California: its Climate, Healthfulness, Productiveness, and Scenery (San Francisco: Bancroft & Company, 1874). The comment on Southern California as the nation’s sanitarium is on page 35.
- Elizabeth Logan’s unpublished doctoral thesis “Urbane Bouquets: A Floricultural History of California, 1848 to 1915” is available from the USC Digital Library. Her list of transplants is on page 49.
- Charles Dudley Warner. Our Italy (New York: Harper Brothers, 1902). Warner’s description of a new nature is on pages 19 and 20.
- F. Weber Benton. Semi-Tropic California: The Garden of the World (Los Angeles: Benton and Company, 1914). Benton’s book rounds out the semi-tropical image of Southern California with chapters on San Diego and Panama.
- Charles Nordhoff. California: For Health, Pleasure, and Residence (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1873).
- James DeLong. Southern California, A Book for the Million, Treating the Climate, Soils, Productions, General Resources, and Development of Semi-Tropical Southern California (Lawrence, Kansas: Journal Company Steam Printing Establishment, 1875).
[i]. “The floral offerings even in the dead of California winter overwhelmed the senses, noted Elizabeth Logan, quoting a writer for the California Horticulturalist and Floral Magazine in 1874. “Roses, Pinks, Stocks, Candy-tuft, Sweet Alyssum, Violets, Stevia, Gladiolus, Pelargoniums, Fuchsias, Pansies, Laurustinus, Diosma, Erica, Mignonette, Gypsophila, and Abutilon” as well as greenhouse flowers, “Camellias, Eucharis, Tuberoses, Epiphyllums, Agapanthus, Azalea, Heliotrope … Spanish Jasmine, Cyclamen, Poinsettia, Chinese Primrose, Begonia, Cineraria, [and] Orange-blossoms.”
[ii]. Some sources put the boundary of the subtropics at 30 degrees north. The higher the number the closer to the North Pole. Each degree of latitude is about 69 miles.
[iii]. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of American English dates semi-tropical to 1853.
[iv]. Truman located semi-tropical California in Los Angeles, Monterey, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura counties. Other writers added Riverside and Kern counties.