October 2009

The California Cure The Land of Sunshine

  • The 'furiously mustachioed' Frank Wiggins
  • Fruitful greetings for train travelers arriving at the East L.A. station
  • An average day in the orange groves
  • Orange packers at Sunkist, circa 1920
  • Seaside lessons
  • The Tom Zimmerman Collection
  • The Tom Zimmerman Collection
  • The Tom Zimmerman Collection
  • The Tom Zimmerman Collection
  • The Tom Zimmerman Collection

by Tom Zimmerman

Frank Wiggins received a death sentence in Richmond, Indiana, in 1886. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis. There was no operation that could cut it out, no miracle drug to cure him. His doctor could only suggest that the magic air of that massive outdoor sanatorium, Los Angeles, might possibly save Wiggins’ life. So Frank climbed on a train to try the “California cure.”

Wiggins was one of the lucky ones “wooed back to life by the omnipotent climate of Southern California,” as William DeMille, Cecil B.’s writer-director brother, put it. Once Frank shook death from his coattails, he went to work for the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. For the last 36 years of his life, he would be the leading designer of the promotional campaign that roared L.A. through the nation for half a century. Its aim was to turn an insignificant, underpopulated agricultural county seat thousands of miles from the main population centers—with no harbor, lousy transportation, a pitiful water supply and no industry or coal—into the greatest city in America.

One thing it did have was the healthiest climate in the country, and that became the central component in the struggle to grow Los Angeles. And no one can say Wiggins’ efforts were not effective: At the start of his campaign, just before the last decade of the 19th century, the population of L.A. was about 50,000; by 1930, it was 1.2 million.

Southern California as the center of all things healthy was key to the chamber of commerce’s message since its inception in 1888. One of its initial area-wide descriptive pamphlets was called The Land of Sunshine. Besides delineating the various regions of the Southland and what would grow there, the opening pages of the 1893 edition offered a glowing description of the positive effect the region had on all manner of diseases, assuring, “This is an ‘all-the-year-round climate,’ pleasing in summer as well as winter...It is not an enervating climate but bracing and full of electricity, a climate that makes the sick well and the strong more vigorous.”

The song remained the same throughout the campaign, but by the beginning of the 20th century, it was those vigorous, strong people who were the target, not the sick. So many healthy people were arriving in “the climatic capital of the nation” that it no longer was necessary to lure people only hoping to survive. The chamber increasingly hammered home the theme that the healthful way of life in Southern California, as lived in its “semitropic sunshine,” had a terrific effect on people smart enough to move there. Never a group to pursue understatement, it claimed “twelve months of healthy outdoor recreation every year has worked wonders...Happiness has shown a tonic effect on the entire population, until today we are beginning to suspect that a superrace of young men and women is growing up in Southern California.”

Of course, all of these people moving to Los Angeles had to make a living, and the chamber assured the country they would still be healthy while at work. As the first great product of Southern California was agriculture, it was easy to work health into that—particularly citrus. It was hardly the only thing grown here, but its specifically healthy nature fit perfectly. Not only would it only grow in a consistently mild climate, it had quickly been turned into the healthiest part of your breakfast once Sunkist began to advertise nationally in 1908.

Plus, there was no better shorthand for our unique environment than the ubiquitous illustrations of acres of orange-bearing trees with snow- covered mountains in the background. Nowhere else in the country could you take such a picture.

The chamber of commerce managed to keep health in the forefront when it began to emphasize industry over agriculture in 1915. That same year, Los Angeles upheld a building-height-limit law restricting even downtown structures to 150 feet to make sure the city would never become a Chicago or a New York, with the sunlight being blocked out by tall buildings. Industrialization was not going to turn L.A. into Pittsburgh or Gary. We would be the home of “clean industry,” featuring “a smokeless, sootless, dirtless factory atmosphere” due to the abundant electric power available in the region.

The boosters concentrated on aviation, citrus, autos and the exteriors of more fanciful factories like the Babylonian fortress of Samson Tire and Rubber. One great irony was that petroleum was one of the predominate industries in the area but was rarely included in any of the PR publications, because there is no way to make it look clean.

The health of people in these new plants became integral to the chamber’s argument that L.A. was the Home of Contented Labor. Not only did workers who came to the city leave behind their “old associations”—chamber-speak for unions—they were happier and more productive because each went home to his own little bungalow with a backyard rather than the sort of god-awful tenement not fit for farm animals that passed for worker housing back East.

L.A.’s chief clean local industry was, of course, movies. Not only were they nonpolluting, they featured the most beautiful and healthy-looking people in the nation—folks the rest of the country found endlessly fascinating. Film companies may have been promoting their own products rather than Los Angeles, but the rest of the country knew where all those robust people were enjoying the beach, golf and tennis and why they looked great all year long. They became the emblem of how our city wished to be seen.

The promotion came to a screeching halt when the Great Depression showed no sign of reaching a rapid conclusion, but the campaign had done its job. The national view of Los Angeles as both the home of all things goofy and the center of American health consciousness had solidified. Movements from nudism and vegetarianism to gyms and personal trainers flourished. The sense that the benign climate lends itself to outdoor life and outdoor life leads to better health permeates Southern California every bit as much today as it did back when Wiggins recovered his health here.

Yes, our air has changed quite radically and our traffic certainly doesn’t lead to peace of mind, but Southern California still has the best climate in America and continues to be the epicenter of wellness consciousness.