The very first issue of the Los Angeles Times — then the Los Angeles Daily Times — came off the presses three weeks before Christmas, 1881. It was a different world then. And a much different Los Angeles.
Nationally, Chester Arthur was president — the third U.S. president that year. Rutherford B. Hayes had turned over the office to James Garfield in March; Garfield was shot on July 2 by Charles Guiteau, who was upset that Garfield had turned him down for a job. Garfield survived until an aneurysm — which developed in part from one of the bullets lodged in his abdomen — killed him on Sept. 19. So Arthur, elevated from his vice presidency, had just three months on the job by the time Christmas rolled around. (Guiteau’s trial in Washington continued over the holidays; he was hanged the next June.)
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this post listed Nevada as a territory in 1881; it had already been admitted to the union by then. And intercontinental was mistakenly used to describe the transcontinental train.
It was the Wild West then. The gunfight at the OK Corral occurred in October in a place — Arizona — that wasn’t even a state yet. In fact, California was part of a statehood island. Oregon and Nevada were states but Arizona, Utah, Idaho and Washington were territories. To the south, Mexico was an independent nation under the heavy hand of Porfirio Diaz.
Los Angeles — then a village, really — had a population of 11,200. The University of Southern California was founded the year before, and the outlying areas around the city center were in the midst of transformation from ranchland to fruit orchards (mostly oranges to be shipped to eastern markets in refrigerated cars on the new transcontintental railroad) to real estate development.
But that building boom would come later. On this day in 1881, Los Angeles was just a village with ambitions, and one that celebrated Christmas. The Times, of course, was in favor of the holiday:
“Christmas is probably the best observed of all the holidays in Christendom. This year it will get a double dose of observing as the 25th comes on Sunday, and Monday is legally set aside for the festivities of the day. Christmas presents many attractions to the old and the young. It is hallowed in every memory. To the young it is an occasion of gift receiving, candy cramming and colic. To the old it recalls childhood’s days, and many a pain from over-indulgence in the sweets and pleasures of its festivities. But Christmas is here. We welcome it as joyfully as the veriest infant, and we extend as hearty a ‘Merry Christmas’ this morning, as the noisest [sic] lad who wakes up his parents with the glad shout, four hours earlier than the usual time.”
There was Christmas week news to report that day, as well:
“The week, as usual before the holidays, has been very dull except for the shop-keepers. They have done an immense trade, and the gifts of Santa Claus throughout the State must be numerous. Even crime has been less flourishing than usual, as though the enterprising burglar and the accomplished murderer had resolved to take a holiday and retire form active business during the Christmas times. The Santiago Gardens, which gained such notoriety from the brutal Italian murder there last week, were again the scene of an outrage a few nights ago, an old woman being knocked down and cruelly beaten by some unknown miscreant. She lay for four or five hours unconscious, and her recovery is dubious.”
In other news, "Mrs. Scoville," a witness in the Guiteau trial, "has left Washington," "Freight rates from Chicago east are down to 12 1/2 cents," and "A flattering revival in business is reported in Sonora, Mexico."
So there you have it — a glimpse, with apologies to Charles Dickens, of Christmas past.
Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle.