The 1920s was a time of great change in the United States. Prior to the Great War, few Americans had the opportunity to travel very far from home, other than people of means. Transportation was limited to trains, steamships, horse and wagon, and primitive cars that had little endurance.

Those who survived the brutal war returned home exhausted, jaded, devastated by loss and injury. Suddenly, the world seemed smaller. Other people, other cultures were more accessible. Old conventions were abandoned. Drastic changes in fashion, wild music and dances, daring motion pictures, Prohibition, all contributed to a new reckless, adventurous spirit many Americans felt.

Technology had improved such that cars were able to travel long distances. Modern highways criss-crossed the country. Service towns, inns, cafes, gas stations, and mechanic shops sprang up every few miles and ‘auto-enthusiasts’ took to the road.

Campgrounds and auto-parks were constructed throughout the western states. Camping gear – including car-tents – made travel accessible to more Americans.

Thanks to vigorous campaign ads broadcast throughout the nation by developers and business owners, Southern California was christened The Land of Sunshine, a true dolce far niente. And, despite its many positive attributes, a change in venue did not mean a life without problems.

No matter – people flocked to California by the tens of thousands, determined to live their dreams.

On Sunset Highways, written by Thomas Murphy provided regional guides for travelers.  The first California volume was published in 1915 with a reprint after the war, in 1921.

The California of to-day is even more of a motor paradise than when we made our first ventures on her highroads. There has been a substantial increase in her improved highways and every subsequent year will no doubt see still further extensions. The beauty and variety of her scenery will always remain and good roads will give easy access to many hereto almost inaccessible sections. And the charm of her romantic history will not decrease as the years go by. There is a growing interest in the still existing relics of the mission days and the Spanish occupation which we may hope will lead to their restoration and preservation. All of which will make motoring in California more delightful than ever.

The book is available on the Project Gutenberg website. Santa Barbara has its own chapter with photos that capture life in the county in the early 1920s.

old view of Santa Barbara State Street

State Street – Santa Barbara – 1923

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Growth of California Roads and Highways in the 1920s

After the war, many Americans purchased their first cars. By the early 1920s, more than 15 million of Ford’s Model Ts were sold in the United States. That dependable, affordable model of automobile put more people on the nation’s roads than ever before. Many were headed to The Land of Sunshine.

The Model T was not the only option. The Automobile Trade Journal provided a wealth of information about all makes of cars, including Chalmers, Studebakers, Haynes, Jewitts, and Kissels. Various models–roadsters, speedsters, sedans, coupes, phaetons, broughams, touring cars and others–gave automobile owners many options. 

The country – along with individual states, counties, and cities, struggled to meet the growing need for paved highways to accommodate travelers. In 1923, a two-cent-per-gallon of gas helped fund the enormous undertaking. In 1925, The United States Highway System helped to identify and standardize interstate roads. CalTrans states, “The most important change created by the act included the provision that state governments, rather than for-profit private road clubs, administer the system.” 

Today, California has 400,000 total lane miles throughout the state. This was not accomplished easily or quickly. 

Some construction equipment was operated by steam power – such as generators, steam shovels, steam rollers, and even steam tractors. Building and maintaining California’s roads has always been vitally important, labor-intensive, and dangerous work.

California Highways and Public Works

The California Department of Highways and Public Works magazine includes numerous stories about roads and highways built in Santa Barbara County in the 1920s. There is a good article about the construction of the road known as Ortega Hill (image above), information about the coastal highway between Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, as well roads built in Santa Maria, Cuyama, and other locations in the area. By 1923, The California Highway Commission became its own entity.

Caterpillars

The Caterpillar tractor and other heavy duty equipment was vitally important to create roadways where there were none. The film, Industrial Uses of Caterpillar Tractors, offers a glimpse into the making of America’s roads, as well as other applications for earth movers, graders, rollers, and other modern equipment the country had come to rely upon.

Maintenance of Roads

A film from the late 1920s entitled Maintenance of Roads, was created by the US Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Public Roads. The hands-on method for maintaining roads is clearly a slow and labor-intensive endeavor in the 1920s. 

Pleasure Drives

When wealthy tourists discovered Santa Barbara County near the end of the 19th century, grand hotels catered to their every need by providing luxury accommodations, fine dining, music, dancing and social events for those who chose to “winter over” in Southern California. High-end shops in the area offered furs, jewels, and other extravagant merchandise. Outdoor diversions were especially popular for those who were no longer housebound by winter weather. Hotels arranged tours for hunters who sought wild game, or those who wanted to fish creekside, or from the sea. Visitors could enjoy golf, ‘sea-bathing,’ tennis, hiking, or yachting almost any day of the year.

One of the most popular pastimes was the pleasure drive. Carriages could be rented so tourists might spend the day driving along an oak-shaded road, the beach at low tide, or braving the extraordinary San Marcos Pass between Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley. These were rare and exotic landscapes for people who were from the Midwest or East Coast.

By the 1920s, the number of auto-enthusiasts throughout the country continued to grow. While many in the United States could not afford the luxury hotels, new auto courts and less expensive hotels grew like mushrooms, especially in Southern California. The area was a prime destination for tourists.  Locally, a variety of m.aps highlighted various points of interest throughout Santa Barbara County, including the mission trail – El Camino Real – identified by the slew of highway markers.

This era was also the beginning of modern photography. New technology put easy-to-use cameras in the hands of many Americans for the first time. Most families had photo albums filled with pictures of life’s memorable moments, especially those taken on vacation. California’s landscapes and incredible vistas became familiar photo backdrops in a pre-Instagram world.

Auto Enthusiasts

With the advent of better roads and more dependable cars, camping soon became a popular hobby. With little more than a car and some helpful tips, families could travel economically and find enjoyment in Nature, whether for a weekend or a month. The national parks were in the business of welcoming travelers and campers. Auto-camps sprang up throughout California. With advice from books like Motor Camping, authored by JC Long and JC Long, or The Motor Camping Book, by Elon Jessup, campers’ questions were anticipated and answered. Even families with small children and little extra money could enjoy time outdoors. The love of camping became a national pastime that only grew more popular with each passing decade.

Not for Everyone

Even with the advent of affordable, dependable cars and the many opportunities for camping outdoors, these pastimes were not available to everyone.

Prior to the 1960s when legislation secured services and supports for Californians who had developmental disabilities, families were routinely advised to institutionalize – and forget about – a family member who was differently abled. Invisibility was society’s answer. There was no accessibility with regard to transportation, housing, employment, or even the smallest of daily tasks and pleasures others enjoyed: dining out, entering a shop, attending a movie or play, going to a park or beach. Camping was, for most, completely out of range.

The era of the 1920s was also one of segregation and mob violence. People of color suffered the wrath of these vigilante groups, most of all.

Article from Big Pine Citizen, Volume 9, Number 52, 9 December 1922:

Washington – Administration leaders in the Senate abandoned the Dyer anti-lynching bill, admitting defeat by the combined Democratic and insurgent Republican filibuster. The decision to throw the bill overboard was reached at a secret caucus of Republican senators. The filibuster started last week and put a stop to the transaction of all business in the Senate.

The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, legislation to prohibit the lynching of human beings in the United States of America, was not re-introduced until 1935. The bill was never passed because of opposition by Southern legislators. It wasn’t until March 29, 2022, that United States President Joe Biden signed anti-lynching legislation into law, for the first time in United States history.

Green Book

The Negro Travelers’ Green Book published in the 1950s, proved that people of color traveled in the United States of America at great risk to themselves and their families. The book lists hotels, restaurants, tailors, bars, auto mechanics, and other establishments considered safe for African American travelers. There are no entries listed for Santa Barbara County.

The 1920s and ensuing years, were just as restrictive for Asian Americans, Mexican Americans, and other people of color, who have endured limitations in their ability to travel freely throughout their own country.

Negro Travelers’ Green Book

 

I don’t find your life uninteresting…I would like to hear it as it sounded while it was passing.

~ Wallace Stegner

Reckoned by the Light of Stars, is my debut novel. The story is set in Santa Barbara County, California, in the year 1922.

I’ve always collected stories casually dropped by old timers, informative historical articles and artifacts that include even the smallest of totems; and the volumes written by credentialed historians, my  research has been incredibly focused: Life in Santa Barbara County, California, in and around the 1920s.

As I explored online resources I was surprised to discover troves of homely, everyday artifacts that added a depth of perspective I couldn’t have attained otherwise. This breadth of material helped me to imbue the characters and setting with the  intimacy that accompanies our most common of items. In the everyday I found the locus of context, a portal to identity.

Whether a schoolbook, a map, a note on the back of a photo, things we use that are so close as to be almost invisible, so ubiquitous as to be hardly noticed, place and character are revealed as unique in all the universe.

A View Into the Past

From the distance of 100 years, hindsight shines the bright light of truth on the past, one the current moment can never achieve. It’s easier to see truth, and lies posing as truth. With clarity of distance, genius and hubris – and their consequences – are undeniable. When viewed with humility and honesty, the past can also point the way to a better future.

Censorship, to include the banning of books, is a topic of interest in both time periods. But today we have unprecedented transparency and online access to information they did not. How will we use it?

When, 100 years from now, the future looks back at us, what will they see?

Each blog post will feature historical information I’ve found online while researching my novel, and a link to the material. While the novel is centered in Santa Barbara County, California, in 1922, national and global influences feature prominently, as well.

The Resources/Links page on my website includes a list of some of the items I used while writing the novel, as well as a few general repositories that I hope you will explore, too. Let me know what you find!

Highway of Dreams

Pictorial Mileage Road Book – Every Mile a Picture

The book, Pictorial Mileage Road Book – Every Mile a Picture, was published by the Motogram Company, of Richmond, California, in 1915. The book details a number popular routes in California’s new highway system. In 1915, roads were still primitive, rough and mostly unpaved–challenging for even the newest cars.

In a modern twist à la Google Street View, The Motogram Company publication included a photograph taken at every mile on every route they traveled throughout California (Santa Barbara, page 231.)

A few years earlier, sometime around 1910, a cadre of real estate developers, investors, bankers, and other hangers-on, launched a vigorous advertising campaign heralding Southern California as a carefree Land of Sunshine. They bought huge tracts of property and established new communities all across the southland. They formed coalitions, associations, men’s and women’s clubs. Hiding political lobbying beneath an altruistic cover crop, they planted seeds of encouragement to entice Americans to move further west, all the way to Southern California.

There were not many takers in those days, as few people could afford such a dream. Getting to Southern California was another issue. Cars were expensive to purchase and maintain and roads were unreliable. Horses still powered most modes of transportation.

By 1920, the crop was coming in. Transplants from the Midwest and East Coast were most plentiful, these non-hyphenate Americans who were the very target of the decade-long campaign, after all. In 1910, the population of Santa Barbara County, California, all 3789 square miles of it, was about 28,000; by 1920, the population of the county 41,000 residents, and growing.