Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/April 1891/Social Changes in California

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WHEN the Central Pacific Railroad crossed the high Sierras, and the Crockers, Stanfords, and Huntingtons, till then obscure Sacramento merchants, gained the first of their long series of industrial and political victories, a country blacksmith, the late Henry Vrooman, afterward State Senator and one of the greatest party leaders ever known on the Pacific coast, said to me: "That railroad changes forever all the conditions of human existence in California. It will never again be as easy to live here."

A thousand times since, events have shown that the gold-miners' El Dorado of 1849, which had become as different from the rest of the United States as South Carolina is from Massachusetts, was readjusting itself to new conditions imposed by the iron links that bound it to the Atlantic slope and the valley of the Mississippi. At first the change was slow and almost unnoticed. Until the close of the war, prices, rates of wages, and the general conditions of life in California, Oregon, Washington, and Nevada remained practically the same as before. Arizona was then but a frontier outpost, and men like Mowry were holding mines with rifle and revolver against the unconquered Apaches. The whole Pacific coast, from the borders of Mexico to Puget Sound, was still forming its own social customs and creating, as did the South, its own literature. The decade of railroad-building was also the decade of the foundation of State universities, magazines, art-schools, and libraries, and, to a remarkable degree, the decade of the beginnings of many private fortunes in mines, commerce, and real estate.

Early conditions of life in California were unusual in the wide range of opportunities offered to men of strong tenacity of purpose. Nearly every one could make money, and a great deal of it, in the decade between 1849 and 1859, but the temptations to spend were enormous. Illustrations of this are usually drawn from the mines, but some of the most characteristic stories come from other sources. In 1853 there were half a dozen men who shot wild fowl and other game in Contra Costa for the San Francisco markets. They could earn fifteen or twenty dollars apiece every day for nine months of the year. One of them saved his money and bought land for a dollar and a quarter an acre that is now covered with buildings; but the rest are forgotten characters, except for a few sentences in the local chronicles respecting their notable bags of game.

Numberless were the contrasts between California life at that period and life anywhere else in the country. Ordinary economic conditions were for a time suspended. Gold was the chief crop of the State, and gold was gold everywhere. The merchants who wanted to make a "corner" in any product need only "corral" all there was of that commodity in California to be safe for days or weeks. Steamers went twice a month to Panama, and the pony express crossed the continent; but we had no telegraph and no railroad, and immigration, after the close of the great goldrush, was comparatively small and steady. In the midst of this isolation a community developed in which every man of any strength or purpose soon knew and was known to every other man of ability. Thus, in the old mining towns, like Placerville, Grass Valley, Oroville, Shasta, and early valley towns such as Stockton, Marysville, and Sacramento, and coast cities such as San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Eureka, and in the hundreds of country neighborhoods, where ex-miners became owners of herds and growers of wheat, isolation produced strong individualism.

The Calif ornian not only gave up his Eastern newspapers, but his Eastern weeklies and monthlies. Cities of the same population as the San Francisco of 1850-'60 seldom have half so long a list of publications. Many of these were illustrated by the drawings of artists like Keith and Nahl. Men drew and painted, etched and engraved, wrote and spoke, for the busy, energetic people of the lands west of the Sierra Nevada. No other audience was possible; no broader field was desired. As the Virginians and the North Carolinians, climbing the Blue Ridge and settling on the lands that slope to the Mississippi and the Ohio, became Kentuckians and Tennesseans in a single generation, so the pioneer men and women from every State of the Union that settled on the Pacific coast became Oregonians and Californians, and founded two as distinct commonwealths as there are in America.

The literary field to which I have alluded is fruitful in illustration. California, before the walls were fairly broken down, had half a dozen weeklies, none of which now remain. They were circulated in every mining camp, some printing ten or twelve thousand copies, and among their writers were Bret Harte, Mark Twain, Noah Brooks, George Frederic Parsons, Ina D. Coolbrith, and such a group of literary men and women as no American city outside of Boston and New York could gather together at that period. A monthly magazine was established, which in a few years gained a circulation of eight thousand copies, and made the reputations of a host of writers. As the sharp pressure of outside competition began to be felt, all or nearly all the literary journals of California rapidly deteriorated in quality, as they lost home support, and they either suspended or became mere advertising publications. Conditions of literary life in California changed during the decade that witnessed the driving of the last spike of the first railroad across the continent. Most of the writers who had earned reputations went elsewhere, and those who stayed became more and more conscious of the fact that they also should have gone. It is not too much to say that along in the early seventies, Californians, always a reading people, became thoroughly aware of the existence of the publications of the rest of the United States. After the crash that followed, when every local journal felt for the first time the competition that a daily mail implies, a few single-hearted men and women revived the magazine, and an entirely different line of weekly publications was established. The old journals had no models, and practically recognized nothing ouside of "the coast"; the new journals, far less original, and developing as yet no writers of national reputation, have become better established financially, and depend considerably upon a circulation in other parts of the country. The chief characteristic of most of them, however, is an exaggerated dread of being considered "provincial," and one can not gratify them more than by praising the "Parisian style" of their local epigrams and illustrations.

The first literature of California was purely American in its best features, and accurately reflected the frank egotism and splendid energy of the young commonwealth, that had as yet felt little or none of the life-struggle in which the rest of the world was engaged. But when the stress came, and the land of ease and plenty, high wages, large profits, and abundant comfort knew hard times, the only book of the era was Progress and Poverty. Luck of Roaring Camps, Big Jack Smalls, and similarly picturesque studies born of the mingling of Russian, Spanish, and American currents, could no more be written in California. The "Great Bonanza" period came and went; the new Constitution agitation, Kearney's sand-lotters, McGlashan's anti-Chinese boycotters, were chapters in the State's history, but no representative book, except George's Progress and Poverty, came to the surface, though the raw materials of half a dozen novels were contained in this transition era. Instead of crystallizing into permanent literary form, the agitation caused by new economic conditions became chiefly political.

During the period of revolt and uncertainty, business suffered, speculation increased, and many men withdrew capital from California. The railroad-builders had brought the State into the general order of things, and life on the old scheme had become impossible, though the war, the clinging of Californians to gold values, and the development of the Comstock, long prevented the popular recognition of the gravity of the problem. When knowledge came, it came swiftly and bitterly. Workingmen who had been earning five or six dollars a day, found, in three or four years, that their wages were forty per cent lower. They felt Chinese competition far more, and other laborers were coming in. The farmers found the price of wheat falling, and ships leaving the coast because of railroad competition, so that freights rose. The merchants found the area of tributary country diminished by the creation of other commercial centers. California suffered more in the necessary readjustment than did any other part of the Pacific coast, because its growth had been much more rapid, its resources had been larger, and it had had, in the historic sense, a far more educating environment. The commonwealth of California was not merely the colony of gold-seekers of '49; it was, in the broader view, the result of American energy working upon the old foundations laid by Spanish pioneers of the eighteenth century; it had its missions and its olive groves before the American Declaration of Independence, when all the rest of the Pacific coast was an unknown wilderness. It could not be otherwise than that the change in economic conditions struck to the heart of Californian life, and seemed for a few years to have produced the disaster of a permanent descent to lower ideals.

"Californians," said a brilliant newspaper man to me during that period, "were once the most magnificently liberal race of men on earth; now they have determined to become the most miserly. Once they talked of endowing a university with twenty million dollars; now they have let President Gilman leave them and go to Baltimore. Once they were proud of everything Californian; now they want a foreign trade-mark on everything."

During the period that I have called the transition era, extending over eight or ten years after 1870, political standards in California were lowered to an extent, in both kind and degree, which is difficult to explain, and which has hardly changed since, except for the worse. All the links and fetters of party allegiance were more tightly drawn. The rule of the purse was more and more pre-eminent in every campaign, and no party or faction long resisted temptation. An almost unbroken line of demagogues, numbered and branded by political bosses, and divided with amusing evenness between the Democrats and the Republicans, misruled the State and increased the expenses of government. The lowering of the remarkably advantageous economic conditions of a quarter of a century ago appears to have thrown many unthinking voters into closer relations with "the bosses" and so has made honest politics a more difficult business. It is the most deplorable result of that sudden outbreak of discontent called Kearneyism, that a lower, more mercenary political order still prevails. Reform rests with the young men, who are organizing, regardless of party, to work for the purification of politics, and with a new conservative class the horticulturists.

Stanford's railroad-builders, breaking down the mountain walls, so that the world-spirit surged in, opened the way for new industries, and the same chain of circumstances that delayed the California's realization of the end of his Utopia allowed the firm establishment of a vast group of occupations before impossible. Foremost of these was that varied and profitable industry which some have called "intensive horticulture"—the industry that makes an acre produce more food value than a hundred acres of wheat or corn. California made a new start, and escaped industrial ruin, chiefly by reason of vineyards, gardens, orchards, seed-farms, hop-yards, and the whole group of allied pursuits. These industries educated a great number of cattle-raisers and wheat farmers, supplemented by clerks and mechanics with their small savings, into horticulturists. Thus California obtained a new and very valuable class of conservative citizens, well out of debt, and more intelligent than the ordinary farmer. The movement toward horticulture, as a business, began when the Central Pacific was completed, and went on steadily through all the years of ferment. It was the most hopeful movement of the time, for it built up the interior of the State, it broke up the great stock-ranges and wheat ranches, and it promised to restore to California far more than had been lost. As soon as horticulture became established as the great future industry of the State, an era of immigration began, first in southern California, then over the whole region. The inevitable readjustment of forces and shifting of industrial centers followed, and is still in progress.

For fifty years to come horticultural interests will probably increase, and among horticulturists the skilled fruit-grower, owning from ten to fifty acres of land, will best represent his class. Such a person is likely to be more of a business man than the average farmer, and is in closer relations to town and city life. He is compelled to travel more, watches the markets and the fields of invention closer, and represents, all in all, a finer type. A California fruit-grower is in some respects akin to the middle class of suburban dwellers near Boston and New York, with this very important difference, that he actually and constantly makes his living from the soil he owns. The one tendency of his life is toward what may be termed "extreme Californianism," for he is growing almonds or oranges or something or other that can not be produced at a profit in many other places on the continent, and the "glorious climate" is his best friend. But, on the other hand, he is in a skilled business, full of technical details, requiring plenty of brain-work, and he is selling in the world's markets. Many a California grower of raisins, oranges, walnuts, olives, prunes, or other horticultural products goes to Chicago and New York every autumn, "to keep the run of the field." The drift of Pacific coast life is toward a rapid increase of the number of orchardists. They are organized, too, in a manner unknown among the farmers, and have several times shown unsuspected courage in independent politics. Some of these days professional politicians will have to deal with a new factor—the horticulturist, a distinct evolution from the conservative American farmer type, quicker of brain, less wedded to party bonds, and more capable of understanding the interests of the commonwealth.

This rapid review of some important economic changes of the past fifty years leads naturally to the consideration of the present conditions of life in California. Wages are still high, and all classes of workers should be prosperous. The resources of the State are being developed at a marvelous rate. In 1880 the population of California was 864,000, and the assessed value of all the property in the State was $504,578,036. "Assessed value," in California, means "that amount which the property would bring at a forced sale." In January, 1890, the estimated population was 1,465,000, and the assessed value of property was $1,112,000,000. The deposits in the savings-banks averaged over $87,000,000, and were widely distributed. The assessors' returns for the counties show that lands in city and country, and their improvements, are well divided up among the people, and California is becoming a State of moderate-sized farms and fair but not large incomes.

The wages of ordinary farm hands in California range from twenty-five to thirty-five dollars a month, usually with board. Portuguese, who are already the peasantry of the rich valleys near the bay of San Francisco, expect from twenty-six to thirty dollars, and board themselves. They own small tracts of a few acres, "work out" most of the time, and are a fairly capable though slow class of laborers. Chinese, who are expert in garden and orchard work, are paid the same as the Portuguese. Italians in the vineyards rate at about thirty-five dollars, and board themselves. Skilled labor in some departments of farm and orchard work commands forty or forty-five dollars a month. Pruners, grafters, fruit-packers, teamsters, obtain such wages, and in the lumber districts Americans often get fifty dollars. Commissioner Tobin's report for 1887-'88 gives the statistics of wages paid in California and other places, and a few comparisons with New York wages will serve to illustrate the subject. California bricklayers rate at thirty dollars a week as against twenty dollars in New York; carpenters, twenty-one dollars as against fourteen; masons, thirty dollars as against eighteen; blacksmiths, twenty-one dollars as against thirteen; draymen, fifteen dollars as against ten; gardeners, eighteen dollars as against nine.

The cost of clothing in California is about ten per cent higher than in the Atlantic States, but the California workman is apt to wear better clothes. The average cost of food is estimated to be higher in California, but the California workman lives better. The cheap restaurants of San Francisco are superior to any in Eastern cities, and one can live there at less expense, or get more for his money, whichever he chooses. Owing to the climate, incidental expenses can be made less in California, and no time need be lost from one year's end to another. Lots are still cheap, and wood, the great building material, is about one third lower than in New York city.

Favorable as are the conditions outlined, the chief advantages are obtained by men. The wages paid to women for manual labor do not compare favorably with Eastern rates. The seamstress is no better off in California than in New York. Men proof-readers receive eighteen dollars a week, while women get nine dollars; men glove-makers are paid twenty or twenty-five dollars, while women have from five to ten dollars; salesmen in stores receive from fifty to a hundred dollars a month, while saleswomen are rated at from twenty to forty dollars. This difference comes partly from the fact that Chinese competition has been especially strong in domestic occupations. As regards teachers, the school law of California says, "Females employed as teachers in the public schools shall in all cases receive the same compensation as is allowed male teachers for like services, when holding the same certificates." In San Francisco the average salary paid to women teachers is $75.16 per month for twelve months. The statistics of the Labor Bureau bring out many encouraging facts about the life of the laboring women of San Francisco. These women number about twenty thousand, engaged in some three hundred occupations. The general condition of the establishments where they are employed is better than in some classes of establishments in the Eastern States, and the hours are shorter. Several "sweaters' shops" have been investigated, and public feeling aroused. In some of the cigar-factories and canneries Chinamen and American girls were found working together, and a law will probably be passed to prevent this. A "workshop and factory inspector," to operate under some general laws such as those of Massachusetts, is needed. The most satisfactory point about the condition of California working girls is the extent to which they "live at home." The tenement-house system has not yet reached San Francisco. With few exceptions the homes of the working women are neat and comfortable. In the interior towns work—girls are paid better, as a rule, than in San Francisco. The growth of horticultural industries has made so many demands for work-girls in the country that the factory system can not be established in California for years to come.

Many California women are making horticultural ventures. Teachers, clerks, type-writers, and saleswomen seem particularly apt to buy land and plant vines or trees. An association of about a hundred women are becoming florists. Another group is interested in buhach, the Persian insect-powder plant. Within a hundred miles of San Francisco the conditions necessary to the successful culture of leading fruits can be obtained. The extent to which women are turning their attention to this field is noteworthy, and must prove one of the important elements in the organization of the "coming California." One finds women directing outdoor operations in every part of the State, and several of the largest orchards are owned and superintended by women.

Labor organizations are strong in California, containing about thirty thousand wage-earners, and collecting over $100,000 a year in dues in San Francisco alone. The trades-unions of San Francisco and vicinity have twenty thousand members. Hours of labor among unorganized classes of workmen range from twelve to sixteen, among the organized classes from eight to ten. In the matter of strikes the trades-unions have sometimes been difficult to control, reckless and dangerous, especially during the "period of transition." Between 1880 and 1886 there were one hundred and seven strikes in California, affecting 6,763 men and women, and losing 1,508 working days, at a cost of $324,639 to the strikers and $311,093 to the employers. Seventy-seven of them succeeded. There were nine lock-outs, all but one among the cigar-manufacturers. Since 1886 the number of strikes and lock-outs has diminished by one half. The largest ones have been in the foundries and iron-works, those industries being in a state of depression. Public sympathy has been with the employers in most of the recent strikes, as the favorable conditions of workingmen in California are well understood.

The Chinese problem, so called, has but little vitality, although it is still a fruitful subject for newspaper editorials and sensational space-writing. The masses of Californians appear to think that the present laws are reasonably well enforced. Orchard and vineyard extensions may cause such a demand for "cheap labor" that the farmers and orchardists, who have hitherto depended a great deal upon Chinese, will form a pro-Chinese party. It was the fruit-growers as a class that broke up and defeated the Chinese boycott in California a few years ago. The ground they take is that they prefer white labor, but they will not see their crops lost when Chinese can be had, and they will not allow any dictation from trades-unions or boycotters. The Chinese now in California have been greatly benefited by the Exclusion Act. They receive better wages than before, and in many cases better treatment. The more enterprising among them show a tendency to become land-renters, and in a few instances land-owners. A Chinaman's point of view is about this: that the soil, climate, and opportunities of California suit him, and a "dollar and a quarter a day" is as much of a bonanza to him as the "sixteen-dollar-a-day diggings" were to the American Argonauts of 1849. He will stay as long as he can get his wages, and, if the Exclusion Act is strictly enforced, the chances are that his earnings will continue to increase. He has trades-unions of his own, and whenever it appears judicious, he strikes for higher wages and usually gets them. The laws that protect him against the competition of other workers of his own race are exactly to his mind.

Speculation in California has taken a turn of late years. Few persons invest in mining stocks any more, and there are not many other speculative securities. The glories of Pine Street and Pauper Alley have departed. Wealthy men who used to gamble in "stocks" now buy mines instead. Twenty or thirty California operators, who have left the street, have agents and experts visiting every camp from Sonora to Alaska, and the actual mine-workers have gradually secured nearly all the valuable properties of the coast. Speculation in real estate has become the form of investment among the poorer and middle classes. Town lots in new towns have had their day, and acreage now "takes the call." Over whole counties the farmers and fruit-growers are mortgaging lands to buy more lands, believing that they never will be so cheap again. The rule of the wheat-grower is that thirty dollars an acre is as much as he can afford to pay, and ten or twelve dollars is nearer the average cost of the grazing lands now changing to wheat. The rule of the fruit-grower is that he must have only the land that is exactly suited to the business, and he can pay from fifty to two hundred dollars an acre for such land, provided he has capital to plant it at once.

Books of California travel, with hardly an exception, lay stress on the restlessness of life here. "The whole State is for sale" is a commonplace of the tourist. But the average Californian farmer, instead of being a speculator, is as tenacious a land-holder as a Pennsylvania Dutchman. During the whole land speculation period in southern California, hundreds of Los Angeles County ranchers went on raising corn and potatoes as calmly as if the excitement had been a thousand miles away. There are large and fertile counties where nearly every farm for miles along the highways is owned by the man who "took it up in the fifties," or is divided among his children. There are rich valley townships where hardly three land transfers take place in a year. The old Missourian settlers are slow to sell or change, but equally slow to improve. New England settlers never sell, but extend their acres if a chance offers. The Western "hustlers," and men from the cities, are the ones that lay out new towns and colonies where immigrants can buy ten or twenty acre tracts. Instead of California being a land of rapid changes in land-ownership, it is, on the whole, very conservative in this respect. The large ranches are for sale, but the homesteads are not.

The middle classes of California will always draw their living from the soil. Mining and lumbering require more capital, and manufacturing will not develop to any great extent for many years to come. The products of which the State appears to have a natural monopoly promise to support a dense population, spread over the country in colonies, on small farms, and in loosely built towns. No other part of the United States is developing under similar conditions, and hence the economic history of California has the importance of a new experiment. Wages still high, a generous scale of living, few manufactures, industries largely horticultural, tendencies which rapidly change the better classes of workmen into small land-owners such are the conditions. What sort of a community will the California of the twentieth century be?

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