Monday, October 29, 2012

Vintage Halloween

A full page of the San Francisco Call was devoted to Halloween party giving, with an apple bobbing demonstration. (San Francisco Call, October 28, 1900)
   Halloween once was a night where party goers attempted to look into the future.  Here's what you might have been doing on Halloween night at the turn of the last century, as described by the newspapers of the day.

The game of Snap dragon
   Raisins, citron cut into dice, candied ginger, a few bitter almonds, sliced, and crystallized fruits are spread on a large silver or stone china platter, set on a marble table.  Turn down the lights and collect the company about the dish before pouring in enough brandy to cover the fruit.  A match is then applied.  Each person must, in his or her turn, try to rescue a bit of fruit or nut from the blue flame.  "A tentative drag is more apt to burn the fingers than a quick, resolute snatch, and there is also the danger that the former method may bring the liquid fire over the side of the dish."

   One's lot in life is prefigured by the nature of the item picked.  A raisin signifies comfortable competence and contentment; citron, wealth; candied ginger, a peppery wife or husband; bitter almond, trouble and vexation; apricot, an amiable consort; a candied cherry, a voyage across the seas; a bit of pineapple, social success. 

The Looking Glass game foretold a young woman's romantic prospects. (San Francisco Call, 1905)

Roasting chestnuts
   This may be done on the hearth of an open fireplace, on the top of a stove or on a hot shovel held over the grate.   Two chestnuts are named and laid together on the heated surface.  If, in burning, they lay contentedly side by side, the omen is favorable.  If one hops away or refuses to ignite, the parties designated would do well not to attempt to join their fortunes.

Bobbing for apples was described as confined to the young men at the party. (San Francisco Call, 1905)

Cabbage stalks
   Cabbage stalks are pulled from the garden by the young people in the dark, or if there is a moon, with closed eyes.  Each must honestly bring to the light that which he or she first lays hold of.  If much earth clings to the roots, the holder will have wealth; if it is bare, poverty.  A healthy, well-made stalk promises a handsome partner for life.  A bite cut from the top of the stalk indicates the temper of said partner.  Some are sweet, some sour and a few bitter.  

   Each "fair owner," after inspecting and tasting hers, cuts her initials on the stalk and all are laid on a table with a cloth cast lightly over them.  The young men are now admitted and draw in their turn.  If a dance is to come off in the evening, each young man dances the first set with the girl whose stalk he has drawn.

An advice column suggested serving "archaic and simple" food. (School for Housewives by Marion Harland, San Francisco Call, 1905)

Fairy boats
   Halve English walnuts and clean out each side.  Melt enough white wax to fill as many shells as there will be persons present at your party, and stir in a few drops of perfume.  Have ready short lengths of coarse cotton cord, loosely twisted.  Hold a bit of the cord upright in the middle of each half shell, and pour in enough melted wax to fill it.  

   Launch the spice lamps in a tub of water, and light the wicks, naming each for a guest.  To set them in motion, jar the tub lightly.  If two boats approach one another, touch and continue the voyage in company, the owners' lots will sometime become one and the same.  If one sputters and soon goes out, the owner will have a brief troubled career.  If two jostle and interfere with each other, those whose names they bear will quarrel.  Should a boat refuse to quit the wharf or return when pushed out, its namesake is indolent and lacking in enterprise.  Those that burn longest, predict the length of days.

The "Dumb Cake" game involved making a cake in which symbolic items were hidden. (San Francisco Call, 1905)

   And, of course, ghost stories.  It's not All Hallows Eve without ghost stories.

"Tell ghost stories until you are afraid to go to bed" instructs the San Francisco Call. (How to Celebrate Halloween, San Francisco Call, October 28, 1900)   

All rights reserved.  No part of the Historic Huntington Beach blog may be reproduced or duplicated without prior written permission from the author and publisher, M. Adams Urashima.   

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Walking Tour #22: The Main Street Post Office, Born in the Great Depression

ABOVE: The historic downtown's Main Street Post Office, dedicated in 1935, the year the WPA was formed.  (Photo, M. Urashima, September 29, 2012) All rights reserved. ©

   Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.
   Once I built a railroad; now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime?
   Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet and lime;
   Once I built a tower, now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime                             
                                        Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? song lyrics, Yip Harburg, 1931

   Sometimes, a post office isn't just a post office.  You might walk right by our historic downtown post office without giving it much thought.  It's worth a closer look.

   Seventy-five years after the Pony Express and twenty-eight years before the introduction of the zip code, Huntington Beach opened the doors to the Main Street Post Office in 1935.  It was a big deal.  Specifically, a New Deal.

ABOVE: A reminder of the deep economic despair faced by Americans in 1935, a family from Oklahoma flees the Dust Bowl via Route 66 for better days in California.  (Photograph, Dorothea Lange)

   The country was digging its way out of the Great Depression.  The stock market dropped 89 percent (it would take more than two decades to recover to the 1929 level).  Banks failed.  Unemployment rose to 25 percent by 1933.  Unhappy with President Hoover, people gathered in "Hoovervilles" (makeshift shantytowns), flew the "Hoover flag" (empty pockets turned out), kept warm with a "Hoover blanket" (newspaper), and drove a "Hoover wagon" (a car towed by a horse because the owner couldn't afford gas).

   In 1933, came the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal.

   Post offices sprung up in small towns around the country, supported by the New Deal's Civil Works Administration and later Works Progress Administration.  It was an effort to create jobs and stimulate local commerce.  When your town was selected for a New Deal post office, it represented hope.

   Huntington Beach's post office was designed by architect Louis A. Simon (1867-1958).  Simon used a similar plan for post offices across the country; you'll find a mirror image of our post office in Santa Paula, California.*

LEFT: The cornerstone on the Main Street Post Office. (Photo, October 2012) All rights reserved. ©

   The building's architecture is considered a "restrained" style, with the minimal ornamentation preferred by the U.S. Treasury Department at the time.  Simon also designed the Internal Revenue Service building in Washington, D.C.

   From tiny Yerington, Nevada to the Village of Haverstraw, New York, to the growing town of Huntington Beach, the New Deal post offices often represented the first federal building in rural communities.

   The grand opening of the Main Street Post Office was greeted with banners, speeches and music.  It was a proud, patriotic moment.  Telephones were not yet common and a modern post office meant we were officially connected to the rest of the country.  We were worthy of an important federal service.

LEFT: The Main Street Post Office, officially called "Beach Center Station." (Photo, October 2012)

   The photograph of the Post Office's December 1935 dedication is still featured in the lobby, in an original glass-fronted "community bulletin" case, 77 years later. 

RIGHT: Dedication ceremony in 1935. (Photo courtesy of

   In 2009, we learned our historic Main Street Post Office was considered non essential by a struggling U.S. Postal Service.  It is one of 100+ post offices in California listed on a closure list in 2011.

   "Retaining all its architectural integrity to the present day," reports the California Preservation Foundation, "the Huntington Beach Post Office is one of the last historic structures left on Main Street and is a local landmark."

   In Eureka! The Postal Service finds gold in California, the Save the Post Office blog notes post offices are a key element of livable, walkable downtowns, "Historic post offices are highly prized by their communities.  They anchor the downtown area, help local businesses, enable people to walk to the post office, and elicit pride of place.  People may complain about the long lines, but they love their grand old post office."

   Evidence of post office love?  Inside the Main Street Post Office lobby on an October afternoon is a poster with finger-painted handprints from Mrs. Taylor's first grade class at Peterson Elementary School proclaiming, "Hands Down Our Main Street Post Office is the Best!"

ABOVE: Inside the beautifully maintained Main Street Post Office.  Seeing a letter inside your glass-front post office box was--and still is--one of life's simple pleasures.  As of October 2012, it appeared every box was in use. (Photo, October 2012) All rights reserved. ©

   The Save the Post Office blog continues, "California has fourteen historic post offices that have been sold, put on the market, or planned for sale — the most of any state in the country...using fifty years old as a rule of thumb for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, over a hundred California post offices are eligible and 24 are currently on the Register."   

   A list of California's historic post offices can be found at  At 77 years old, the Main Street Post Office is considered eligible for listing on the National Historic Register (some on the List are younger).

  This is another piece of Americana worth seeing.  If you're visiting Huntington Beach, drop your postcard to those back home at our Main Street Post Office.  For locals, if you haven't visited this historic post office in a while, time may be running out.

Directions to walking tour stop #22:  From Pacific Coast Highway, head two blocks inland on Main Street; our historic post office is at the northeast corner of Main Street and Olive Avenue.

ABOVE: Box number one at the Main Street Post Office.  Tooled brass surrounded by wood moulding, with hand-painted numbers---early 20th Century craftsmanship. (Photo, October 2012) All rights reserved. ©

ABOVE: Dark polished wood frames the window that looks out on a busy Main Street. (Photo, October 2012) All rights reserved. ©

ABOVE: Locals only.  The hand-painted mail drop inside the Main Street Post Office. (Photo, October 2012) All rights reserved. ©

LEFT: Photo posted in 2009 on O.C. History Roundup,  

BELOW: Photo taken October 2012.  The same two bicycles parked in front.

*Editor's Note: To view the Santa Paula, California post office---our identical twin---see

A thought-provoking editorial on post office closures, Who owns our downtown post office?, can be found in The Berkeley Daily Planet at

All rights reserved.  No part of the Historic Huntington Beach blog may be reproduced or duplicated without prior written permission from the author and publisher, M. Adams Urashima.   

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Dreaming big: Pacific City 1903

ABOVE: Pacific Electric Railway map of Pacific City (Huntington Beach) circa 1903.  (Image,

   The map above was made by the West Coast Land and Water Company in 1903, six years before Huntington Beach incorporated.   The West Coast Land and Water Company was a land syndicate formed by Philip A. Stanton, John N. Anderson and Colonel S.H. Finley, who acquired 1,500 acres of which 40 acres would be the new Pacific City.

   Printed on waxed linen, it still shows the pencil marks of planned roadways.  The map shows the pier, bath house, a pavilion, and planned ocean-front lots north of Newport Beach.  There's also a mention of "Vickers addition," which is a reference to J.V. Vickers, also part of the West Coast Land and Water Company.

ABOVE: A view of Huntington Beach from the wharf, circa 1904.  (Photo, USC Libraries)

   There are street names that have since dropped off the map: Water, Finley, Philo, Gates.  And, of course, the bigger change came when the partners enlisted Henry E. Huntington to bring his electric railway to town.  Huntington agreed, received a large block of stock in the company, the West Coast Land and Water Company became the Huntington Beach Company, and the town was renamed Huntington Beach.  

   By July 1904, the Pacific Electric Railway extended its line from Long Beach to Huntington Beach.

   In a 1981 history of Huntington Beach, Carolyn F. Bailey writes the Huntington Beach Company "invested heavily in city improvements.  A generator was built to provide electricity. Telephone service operated from 6 A.M. to 9 P.M.  Sidewalks, curbs and gutters were built.  A pavilion, an indoor plunge and a hotel were constructed.  Parks and a nursery, providing free plants to residents, were among the major projects undertaken."

   According to Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps, "by early 1903 about 200 lots had been sold, a 550-foot wharf had been built plus a pavilion and about 35 cottages."  Ruderman is selling the map and you can take a closer look at the map's details at

ABOVE: A horse race on the sand in Huntington Beach, early 1900s. (Photo, Pomona Public Library)

All rights reserved.  No part of the Historic Huntington Beach blog may be reproduced or duplicated without prior written permission from the author and publisher, M. Adams Urashima.