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Retailing in Old LA: Dripping Tar, Imaginary Coins, Whiskey, and Horse Blankets

Workman Brothers, about 1868.
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Stores in 1850s Los Angeles were small, half-lighted from the crookedness of the town’s street plan, with a Colt’s revolver under the sales counter against the town’s terrible violence. When night fell, stores were shuttered against theft and riot with stout panels of cast iron. Shopping in old Los Angeles was not easy, pleasant, or cheap.

Shopping in old Los Angeles was not easy, pleasant, or cheap.

Laura Eversten King, writing in 1900, described the town’s shopping district as “two or three streets whose business centered in a few tiendas, or stores, decorated with strings of chilis or jerked beef. The one window of each tienda was barred with iron, the tiendero sitting in the doorway to protect his wares, or to watch for customers. Sidewalks were unknown. Pedestrians marched single file in the middle of the street, in winter to enjoy the sunshine, in summer to escape the trickling tears of brea [tar] which, dropping from the roofs, branded their linen or clogged their footsteps.”

Tar, mostly from seeps west of the plaza, provided weatherproofing over the clay and reed wattle that made up the roofs of Los Angeles. Only the plaza church and the town jail had the tile roof that would become an icon of Southern California in the 20th century. (Split wood shingles arrived in the 1860s.)

Post-colonial Los Angeles barely reached one story along streets that would remain unpaved for another thirty years. There were, wrote H. D. Barrows, only three or four two-story buildings. The town’s flat-roofed, rectangular structures clung to the adobe soil from which they were made. They looked, said one unimpressed observer “like so many brick kilns ready for the burning.”

“The old pueblo was homely almost to ugliness,” wrote historian James Guinn. “The clay-colored fronts of the houses that marked the lines of the irregular streets were gloomy and uninviting. There was no glass in the windows; no lawns in front; no sidewalks, and no shade trees.” There was almost no lighting after dark, except for the few shop owners who hung a lantern by their door until 8:00 p.m., the usual closing time.

Daytime business was necessarily conducted half inside and half outside the doorways of these cramped, dim establishments (that doubled as living quarters for the shop owner or his assistant). Indoor lighting would have been a brace or two of tallow candles or a lamp burning refined turpentine. Window glass was such a novelty that the Morris and Brothers clothing store celebrated the installation of its show window in a lengthy advertisement in the Los Angeles Star in 1857. The extravagant “crystal show case” included, oddly, a railroad train etched in the glass.

Los Dos Amigos, 1857.
Los Dos Amigos, 1857. Los Dos Amigos was owned by Don Filipé (or Philip) Rheim, who hung his housewares at the store’s entrance. The flat roof was made partially weatherproof by a coating of hardened tar (that would soften and drip on customers in the heat of summer). Photograph courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.
Goller's carriage and blacksmith, 1857.
Goller's carriage and blacksmith, 1857. John Goller's shop was on the west side of Los Angeles Street south of Commercial Street, It was somewhat unusual in having a second story. Photograph courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.
Hellman & Bro., 1857.
Hellman & Bro., 1857. The book, stationary, and cigar store (at Temple Avenue and Main Street) was the first commercial venture of brothers Herman and Isaias Hellman. The Hellman brothers were German-born members of the city’s small Jewish community in the 1850s. Isaias prospered as a banker and was one of the founders of USC. Photograph courtesy of the Photo Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

Among the merchants of Los Angeles in the 1850s were names that would shape the city’s future: the Hellman brothers, Benjamin Wilson, John Temple, Abel Stearns, Harris Newmark, Francis and Henry Mellus, brothers Juan and Mateo Lanfranco, Orzo. W. Childs, Charles Ducommon, John Downey, and William Workman. With few exceptions, most of these businessmen sold general merchandise. General, in Laura Eversten King’s recollection, “meant anything from a plow to a box of sardines, or from a needle to an anchor. Some merchants sold sugar and silks, others brogans and barrels of flour.”

Charles Ducommon, a watchmaker who had walked to Los Angeles from Arkansas, sold “the best goods, although at enormous prices,” according to King. Ducommun's first store was, according to memoirist Harris Newmark, “about 16 by 30 feet in size, but it contained an astonishing assortment of merchandise, such as hardware, stationery and jewelry.

Wheeler and Johnson, having set up shop in part of the large building on the plaza that had been Abel Stearns’ palacio, advised customers that they had for sale:

Groceries, soap, oil, candles, tobacco, cigars, salt, pipes, powder, shot, lead. Provisions, flour, bread, pork, hams, bacon, sugar, coffee. Dry Goods, broadcloths, cassimeres [sic], blankets, alpacas, cambrics, lawns, ginghams, twist, silks, satins, colored velvet, nets, crepe, scarlet bandas, bonnets, lace, collars, needles, pins. Boots, shoes, hats, coats, pants, vests, suits, cravats, gloves, hosiery. Furniture, crockery, glassware, mirrors, lamps, chandeliers, agricultural implements, hardware, tools, cutlery, house-furnishing goods, liquors, wines, cigars, wood and willow ware, brushes, trunks, paints, oils, tin ware and cooking stoves.

To which James Guinn added, “When we recall the fact that all of this vast assortment was stored in one room and sold over the same counter we must admire the dexterity of the salesman who could keep bacon and lard from mixing with the silks and satins, or the paints and oils from leaving their impress on the broadcloths and velvets.” The sale might also have included a glass of beer or a shot of raw whiskey. John Schumacher, like many other merchants, combined a retail business and a bar in his one-room store.

Harris Newmark, who had come to Los Angeles in 1853, lived in the back of this brother’s general store and covered himself on cold nights with blankets taken from stock, which he refolded and put back on the shelves each morning. When it grew very cold, he piled on five or six blankets. “Common horse blankets,” Newmark complained 60 years later, “and thin.”

Store on Aliso Street, about 1882.
Store on Aliso Street, about 1882. This shop on Aliso Street appears to be a relic of colonial Los Angeles – a one-story adobe block, roofed in soil and tar, lighted primarily by its doorways. Photograph courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.
Workman Brothers, about 1868.
Workman Brothers, about 1868. The Workman saddlery shop reflected the Americanizing of Los Angeles in the post-Civil War period. Brick, not adobe, was the modern building material, making this two-story structure possible. The building, which included a general stores and a public baths, was located on Main Street near Commercial Street. Photograph courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

General stores were the norm, but some specialty businesses also sought customers. Workman made saddles. Childs began as a tin smith who became a wholesale grocer by 1857 and a hardware dealer by 1861. Brothers Herman and Isaias Hellman sold books, stationary, and tobacco along with cutlery, candy, and toys. John Downey was a druggist (and became California’s governor).”

Nothing of significance was made here. Everything the shops of old Los Angeles sold, except baking flour and grape alcohol came from somewhere else.

The quantity of the goods sold in Los Angeles was erratic and depended on shipments from the eastern states that went around tip of South America to California, often taking more than three or four months. Los Angeles was at the extreme edge of American expansion in the 1850s, further away in terms of contact with the wider world than even San Francisco. Nothing of significance was made here. Everything the shops of old Los Angeles sold, except baking flour and grape alcohol (called aguardiente) came from somewhere else.

Steamships arrived about twice a month at San Pedro, where cargo had to be transferred to barges and off loaded at Phineas Banning’s landing to be hauled to Los Angeles, 27 miles away, by Banning’s teamsters. Transportation and handling ($20-25 a ton from San Francisco to San Pedro; another $20 a ton from San Pedro to Los Angeles) tripled wholesale prices. Retailers added their own markup. At a time when common laborers in Los Angeles made between one and two dollars a day, John Goller, the city’s leading blacksmith, charged $16 to shoe a horse.

Guinn, addressing the Historical Society of Southern California in 1898, explained how an odd form of arbitrage complicated retail sales in the 1850s:

Commercial transactions, when the amount involved was the fractional part of a dollar, were carried on in “bits.” The bit was an imaginary coin of the value of 12 1/2 cents. Its use in California, no doubt, grew out of the necessity of having some medium of exchange that was understood both by the American and the native Californian. The Mexican real and the American “bit” had the same value: 12 1/2 cents. The American coin approximating nearest in value to the “bit” was the dime. You bought an article priced at a “bit” and gave the dealer a ten-cent piece; he was short 2 1/2 cents. If you did not have a “short bit” and gave him a quarter of a dollar, or dos realas, he gave you back in change 10 cents; then he was long, and you were short. … The dime was the smallest coin in circulation; an article was worth a dime or nothing. It is needless to say that the dealer was the gainer in the long run by such a system of exchange.

Emile Bordenave at the Louisiana Coffee Saloon in 1860 offered diners a “bit a plate” deal. Better quality saloons were considered “two bit” houses.

The accumulating dimes and quarters in commercial Los Angeles were themselves a problem. There was no bank, although (noted Newmark), John Downey and one or two larger retailers had some kind of a safe. Shopkeepers hoarded their coins in deep, narrow buckskin bags, hiding it behind the merchandise on store shelves until a steamer could carry the cash for deposit in a San Francisco bank. Or the cash could be turned into vouchers that were negotiable as a kind of informal currency.

Sarah and Harris Newmark, circa 1890.
Sarah and Harris Newmark, circa 1890. Newmark came to Los Angeles in 1853 to work in his brother’s store. He chronicled the early days of the city in a memoir that remains a primary source for Los Angeles history in the second half of the 19th century. Photograph courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.
The intersection of Commercial Street (later Alameda Street) and Main Street, 1870
The intersection of Commercial Street (later Alameda Street) and Main Street, 1870. Steps away from the two-story buildings that had begun to urbanize the city’s business core were the sort of one-story buildings that are an “Old West” cliché. Sam Myers crockery store and the C. Dillerd boot and shoe store shared this muddy stretch of downtown street. Photograph courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.

Los Angeles had a minor gold rush of its own in 1855 when streams in the canyons of the San Gabriel Mountains were first prospected. Miners from the San Gabriels paid for goods in gold in Los Angeles and, noted Laura Eversten King, one of the odder sights was the shop kept by Abel Stearns “wherein common candy jars filled with gold, from the finest dust to chispas or nuggets, could be seen from the street adorning the shelves.”

The business of buying and selling in Los Angeles was risky in the economic drought that followed the local gold rush. The despondent owner of the failing Los Angeles Star wrote:

Dull time! says the trader, the mechanic, the farmer – indeed, everybody echoes the dull sentiment. … Business is dull – duller this week than it was last; duller today than it was yesterday. The flush times are past – the days of large prices and full pockets are gone; picayunes, bad liquor, rags and universal dullness – sometimes too dull to complain of – have usurped the minds of men and a common obtuseness prevails. Neither pistol shots nor dying groans have any effect; earthquakes hardly turn men in their beds. It is no use of talking. Business stepped out, and the people are asleep. What is to be done? Why the first thing of course is to stop off such things as can be neither smoked nor drank; and then wait for the carreta, [ox cart] and if we don't get a ride, it will be because we have become too fastidious or too poor and are unable to pay this expense.

And when business was slow, businessmen occupied their time as best they could. According to Newmark:

During the monotonous days when but little business was being transacted, it was not uncommon for merchants to visit back and forth and to spend hours at a time in playing cards. To provide a substitute for a table, the window sill of the thick adobe was used, the visitor seating himself on a box or barrel on the outside, while the host within at the window would make himself equally comfortable.

Alternately sleepy and violent, Los Angeles in the 1850s made do with the rough materials – mud and tar, whiskey and beer, cow hides and bonnets – from which the city took its form, its pleasures, and its habits of buying and selling.

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