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When Big Numbers Roamed the Hills of Los Angeles

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Los Angeles has always been smitten with outdoor advertising, thanks to its motorized population, fair weather, and wide open spaces. Blocks of empty lots fronting boulevards in the 1920s and 1930s, for example, were nearly walled off by enormous billboards placed at drivers' eye level.

But billboards were beat for dramatic size as early as 1916 by advertisements for ketchup and pickles. On a slope in the Baldwin Hills, where Moynier Lane (now La Cienega Boulevard) curved among oil wells, and on another prominent slope near Culver City, "57" in giant concrete numbers reminded both motorists and Pacific Electric passengers to stock up on Heinz's 57 varieties of condiments.

 
The Heinz Company poured its iconic number over other hillsides in California, notably overlooking the main rail line through South San Francisco. (There was even one in Mr. Heinz' Pennsylvania back yard overlooking the Allegheny River.)

The 57 overlooking the PE's Air Line route through Culver City to Santa Monica also was spectacularly illuminated. In the breathless language of the era's headlines, "Nine 1000-Watt Projectors Are Used to Illuminate Giant Figures So that They Are Read as Easily by Night as by Day."

The figure "5" was 70 feet wide. The "7" was 85 feet. Both were in the Heinz Company's "official" italic typeface with the tops of the numbers even and the tail of the "7" running a little lower than the "5." The story also noted that the hillside was green all year and that fog hardly every obscured the lighted numbers at night. "It is estimated," the story enthused "that ... an average of fully 2,000,000 people each month pass within view" of the numerals, because as Printers Ink Monthly noted in 1919, they "glisten out through the night to be read by automobilists and patrons of the railroads and interurban car lines."

Perhaps I'm a cynic (or have written too many press releases) but I'm not sure about the eternally green hillside and the two million monthly viewers - either "automobilists" or PE passengers - who might have noticed all that glistening while hillsides in Los Angeles bloomed not with golden poppies but with concrete numbers.

 

The photographs in this essay are from the Southern California Edison collection of the Huntington Library. Last year, along with other local writers and artists, I took part in a project that used the collection as material for an exploration called Form and Landscape. I've returned to the collection again and again since at the invitation of Jennifer Watts, the Huntington's curator of photographs, to understand how Los Angeles has pictured itself.

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